Discourse on the Style Manual Strunk and White

by Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin

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In his style guide, Strunk discusses in detail the defining principles of composition and writing. His 11 Elementary Principles of Composition contain several noteworthy points. Among his recommendations are “to choose a suitable design and hold to it, make the paragraph the unit of composition, begin each paragraph with a strong topic sentence and thoughtful use of the active voice”. Essentially, writing with these elementary building blocks can be compared to creating a music composition. Paragraphs symbolize harmony, topic sentences depict the melody and the active voice represents the dynamics.
Paragraphs comprise the first unit, the body of the composition. After introducing the main idea at the beginning of a paragraph, three to five sentences follow and support the main idea within. A closing sentence finishes the paragraph and serves as the recapitulation of the main idea put forth. As harmonious building blocks of coherence, paragraphs aid the reader to follow the logical development of the composition.

Focused, clear, specific topic sentences state the main idea of the paragraph. A strong topic sentence serves as the ‘hook’, the ‘melody’ – an invitation to the reader to further explore the text. A topic sentence focuses on and highlights the main idea of the paragraph. The format of a topic sentence is topic + a controlling idea. The controlling idea shows the direction the paragraph will take. Example sentence: compelling writing of compositions requires certain characteristics. The topic is “effective writing of compositions” and the controlling idea is certain characteristics. To summarize, paragraphs are introduced by topic sentences which are comparable to a catchy tune.

The use of active voice generates positive impact, robust dynamics and an elegant flow of sentences and paragraphs. Active sentences contain an active subject. The subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the following sentence, “The king loves the queen.” The king is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves the queen, the object of the sentence. An active voice makes it clear who is doing what, it sings in forte or piano.

Strunk models the treatment of paragraphs, topic sentences, and the importance of active voice in writing direct and concise sentences as key in clear and logical writing. Without proper scaffolding and interlocking sequences, writing is prone to lose its focus and thrust.

In conclusion, actively voiced paragraphs and topic sentences are the basic foundations of engaging and thought-provoking writing just as musical compositions use the building blocks of harmony, melody and dynamics to create transcendent symphonies.

Reflections on Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail

 

Martin Luther King’s letter – document from Stanford Online Library

_MG_8718-1  by Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin

In his letter from Birmingham, Jail King responded to the critical publication “A Call for Unity” by eight clergymen who chastised both his presence and actions as “unwise and untimely.” King established a common background with his “fellow clergymen” through classical, literary-historical, and biblical allusions in order to clarify and declare his reasoning towards the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the legitimacy of his personal presence in Birmingham. One of the main threads in King’s letter is his underlying dialogue with the question if individuals are ever morally justified in breaking civil law. King addresses six major issues in his letter: negotiation, timing, breaking laws, triggering violence, the myth of time, and extremism. In order to illustrate his points and appeal to appeal to logos, ethos and pathos King uses classical, historical, and biblical allusions as well as quoting idealist historical figures as his rhetorical strategies.

King uses the example of Socrates, the Western archetype of wisdom, the father who birthed academic freedom through his acts of civil disobedience to address the assertion in “A Call for Unity” that King’s actions, “even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” In his appeal to logos King writes, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” In effect, King created the following syllogism: If Socrates is good, and Socrates was right to create tension so that the mind could grow, it follows tension is good for inspiring growth in mankind. Furthermore, King implies that proceeding without tension is going to leave man in “the dark depths of prejudice and racism.”

His allusion to historical events such as the discovery of the Americas, Nazi Resistance, and the Boston Tea Party seek to establish connections between morally bankrupt oppressive societies; the silent white moderates; transformative historical events; and figures of high moral and ethical repute both present and past; and the Civil Rights Movements justified use of civil disobedience when faced with injustice. In response to the clergyman’s claim that his use of direct action was “untimely,” King appeals to pathos “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights”, a reference to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. References like this give an aura of authenticity and credibility to the points and events of civil disobedience being illustrated in King’s letter. One of his examples is the vandalism of the Boston Tea Parties which was named heroic by the American public at the time. He continues his arguments with ethos, pointing to Hitler’s ‘legality’ of actions in his pursuit of the complete annihilation of King’s “Jewish brothers” versus human morality. He then juxtaposes Hitler’s legality versus the Hungarian Freedom Fighters illegality in their struggle to obtain freedom. “We can never forget that what everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” He leads the readers to the conclusion that devotion to “order” rather than justice blocks the “flow of social progress.” His syllogism here is Civil disobedience and breaking unjust laws because one obeys “higher laws” is, therefore “in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

King uses the pathos of the early Christians biblical struggle as his justification for “the mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice.” He links the struggle of the Civil Rights movement to that of Christianity by alluding that despite their collective suffering neither group submitted to unjust laws. Furthermore, King asks these powerful rhetorical questions; “Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? Was not Martin Luther an extremist…and John Bunyan?” By mentioning influential biblical and theological figures who suffered for their beliefs, King appeals to both pathos and ethos by showing the moral exemplar personified and the inspiring influence they had on Christianity. King specifically aims for pathos when he mentions three Christian extremists who were crucified, including Jesus Christ the Church’s representative of mankind’s highest potential of a human being. He also refers to the church as ethos. For MLK, “the church as the body of Christ” has the moral obligation to stand against unjust laws. He quotes St. Augustine who said: “An unjust law is no law at all.” Finally, King further stokes the embers of sympathy by describing the disappointment he had to the church’s reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. He points out that Christians have “to obey God rather than man” and that a living Church, the true ecclesia, as the representation of Christ-like goodness and hope of the world, needs to be again a thermostat that transforms the mores of society.

King’s message to his fellow Christian Clergyman can be compared to prophetic message of Jeremiah who “… had come to the dungeon cells and remained there many days.” It was Jeremiah who delivered a message from the Lord to the Hebrew people who were struck with despair after their community had been split and almost destroyed. In essence, King assumes the mantle of prophecy for his people and their struggle. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Prophecy is born precisely in that moment when the emergence of social political reality is so radical and inexplicable that it has nothing less than a theological cause.” Not only did King symbolize the Zeitgeist of the desegregation movement, he also grabbed hold of his community stuck in despair. Through his moral, ethical and intellectual leadership he rallied support, empathy, understanding, and sympathy for the Civil Rights movement and desegregation across color lines to “dispel the dark clouds of racial injustice” for the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood.”

Minds Online by Michelle Miller book review

Educating Minds Online by Michelle Miller – A Reflection

Educating Minds Online by Michelle Miller

by Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin CowinJasmin

Educating Minds Online was written by Michelle Miller, a Professor, teacher and cognitive scientist. The book’s focus is on weaving her broad knowledge of the field together with a roadmap for truly effective teaching with technology.

Miller discusses in-depth cognition, online learning, mental processes and the cognitive resources needed to transform online content into concrete learning outcomes for students. Her focus on how attention works from both neurological and psychological perspectives has implication for classroom and online design. She states: “Attention is the complex and somewhat mysterious process of allocating limited cognitive resources across myriad competing demands. It is intimately tied up with consciousness, perception and memory, involving multiple structures within the brain, ” Her findings are backed up by multiple sources, research and experiments.

One key factor is her description of attentional limitations crossing all sectors of intelligence and personal ability. The Inattentional blindness effect demonstrates how narrow personal focus can be in learning. Much of chapter four is devoted to experiments focusing on divided attention and the negative learning outcomes of the participating subjects. A key fact pertinent to teachers is that “attention is limited.” Generally, there is a personal disconnect between perceived and actual capacity handling multiple tasks at once. Most people think they can juggle multiple tasks at once when really they can’t.

However, scaffolded, repeated practice can lead to automaticity and working memory. Students with a strong capacity to access needed information and filtering out irrelevant information are more successful in retaining and synthesizing information and content. Miller then analyzes selective attention abilities and how they relate to learning and academic achievement.

As stated by Miller, courses, therefore,  need to provide interleaving scaffolding and formats with several learning opportunities and repeated practice for all students, including those with ADHD, to manage students attentional limitations. Her strategies for successful online learning design are fourfold: Ask students to respond. Take advantage of automaticity. Assess cognitive load. Discourage divided attention. Therefore, important concepts in scaffolding online courses and delivering in-class modules “include repetition, organizing new language, summarizing meaning, guessing the meaning from context, and using imagery for memorization.”

 

“Blogging has changed the way we communicate.”

With the rise of interactive social media, especially blogging, our way of communication has changed to an interactive communication process.

Ten years ago there was no Facebook,WordPress, Twitter, Foursquare, Linkedin, Wikipedia, Instagram, Pinterest, or any other social media platform. Initially, communication and interaction with websites were predominantly one-sided. Web sites would offer information but no interaction. Web surfers would skim across multiple websites without the ability to interact, comment or communicate in real-time. Information would be scanned often without focus or intellectual investment. Passive website viewing rarely allowed two-way interactions.
With the rise of interactive social media, especially blogging, our way of communication has changed to an interactive communication process. Blogging sites such as WordPress offer preset, easily adjustable, free templates for beginner bloggers who can communicate via text, images and video messages to an international audience. Collaboration on a global scale with robust feedback, comment features and instant translation services capture the rapidly evolving nature of online communication. Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister said: “Take, therefore, what modern technology is capable of: the power of our moral sense allied to the power of communications and our ability to organize internationally. That, in my view, gives us the first opportunity as a community to fundamentally change the world. “
However, blogging also poses challenges. Inadvertent self-disclosure in blogging is akin to “peeling back the layers of an onion. The outer layers of the onion represent superficial information about a person, such as physical appearance and speech. The deeper layers represent more intimate information, such as the person’s thoughts, feelings and relationships with others. “Social Penetration Theory
Entering the blogging and social media galaxy is a multi-dimensional journey which starts with listening and learning, self-disclosure, engaging across all channels, joining and creating communities, and connecting to collaborative partners across the globe. This networking and collaboration leads to collective intelligence, transparency and collaborative solutions.