Making Changes, Making Meaning Applying Berthoff's thoughts on thinking to the composition classroom

Different Decade, Same Struggles

Ann Berthoff's "Is Teaching Still Possible?" was published 32 years ago, yet similar issues to the ones that she describes are still present in academia today. At the beginning of her article, Berthoff details the problems that arise when educators adhere to a pedagogy of exhortation rather than a "pedagogy of knowing" (744). As she explains, it is ineffective and misrepresentative to rely too heavily on empirical data without putting it in the context of composition and actual people, referring here to the misguided application of Piaget's stages of development to adults in education. By modeling methods solely around this cognitive concept or other isolated data out of context, professors run the risk of misunderstanding or dismissing students with different learning backgrounds and needs than their classmates. While Piaget may not hold as much significance in our pedagogy today, the idea that we should question and thoughtfully consider the theories and data that underwrite our teaching decisions remains relevant.

Piaget's Stages of Development

According to Berthoff, the other major issue facing college educators is a distorted view of language that "cannot account for meaning nor give an account of meanings" (744). She expands on this idea by saying that language is now seen as only a means of communicating, when in actuality language is a way of making meaning as opposed to simply iterating what already exists. In this world, teaching becomes a rigid system where instructors transfer facts to students, which they then regurgitate on a test or paper without proper engagement with the text, formulaically adding or removing any grammatical elements prescribed by the instructor. Berthoff comments on the impact of this pedagogy on students' perceptions of composition courses:

"An effective English 101 (Turn off your mind and float downstream) and a cognitive English 102 (Get your thesis statement! Generalize! Be brief! Don’t generalize!" (750).

This type of thinking is futile and misses the big picture.

what is the big picture?

Berthoff stresses the point that abstraction is key to making meaning in the classroom and making changes in teaching pedagogy.

Presented below are explanations from and analyses of the article that get to the heart of abstraction (pun intended), as well as my suggestions for assignments based off of Berthoff's concepts of perception and dialogue that could be given in English 1030.

Teaching Thinking

Berthoff has a lot to say about abstraction. And despite what you might think from her essay up to this point, she does not advise us to teach abstraction. Why? Because we’re all abstract already; abstraction is born in us. Most students don’t realize it, but they think abstractly every day, making meaning (750). Seeing a theme here? Let’s look at Berthoff’s definition now:

Abstraction is natural, normal. It is the way we make sense of the world in perception, in dreaming, in all expressive acts, in works of art, in all imagining. Abstraction is the work of the active mind; it is what the mind does as it forms.

So, if abstraction is intrinsic in every student, and we can’t teach it, then what can we do? Berthoff suggests that it’s our role as instructors to “show students how to reclaim their imaginations” (750). By doing so, we get students to engage with this critical thinking, which will lead them from non-discursive abstraction to discursive abstraction to the end game, generalization. We’ve answered the who and the why, and while this sort of uninhibited thinking sounds great, how do we get there?

Berthoff proposes that we use a triadic model, adopted from C. S. Pierce’s Meaning of Meaning. Replacing the typical audience, writer, message model, this one has a dotted line at its base, as pictured below, and requires you to get from the symbol to the thing symbolized by means of meaning (751). That illustration puts much more emphasis on meaning-making and is reminiscent of the significance of language that Berthoff mentioned earlier.

The Triad

abstract assignments

In order to get students to the generalization stage, Berthoff suggests assignments based on perception and dialogue. She mentions one of her exercises, HDWDWW, or how did who do what and why? With this prompt, she has students walk through basic actions in response to those questions. This idea is particularly insightful, encouraging students to get in the habit of returning to something to reflect on it. I think this type of activity would also be eye-opening to students, making them think about the rhetoric that is employed in even the simplest of actions.

The assignment idea I have plays on Berthoff's ideas but also challenges them in some respects. In the article, Berthoff discourages assigning work on inflammatory topics and engaging in debate, suggesting instead that students dialogue in a journal and avoid touchy subjects. While I am a proponent of that form of dialogue and think blogging is well-suited to unlocking discursive abstraction, I have to disagree on another level.

Successful Dialoguing

Yes, debates can exacerbate tensions over political issues or personal preferences, but that does not discredit their worth. Respectful dialogue in the classroom gives students a platform to discuss issues of significance to them and their community. Take for example the Sikes Sit in. This is a current issue effecting the Clemson community, and I cannot imagine telling students that they should not write or speak about their opinions on it, whatever those may be, in class or in their assignments. While dialogue between students with conflicting ideas may not lead to one person conceding to the other's perspective, is that really the point? I see in-class dialogue as a way of getting students to engage discursive abstraction and employ rhetoric. Even students who do not speak up can benefit from being present for these dialogues as it might lead them to think abstractly.

Let's Talk Politics

Election season is upon us, and it will reach its height during the fall semester. A few months ago, some friends shared the video below with me, which we also watched in class. I was both intrigued and impressed by the analysis, knowing then that I would like to incorporate it and similar content into my class discussions next year.

In a sense, this video is an extensive version of Berthoff's HDWDWW? exercise. The creators of the video walk us through what Trump does linguistically, how he does it, and why. Like I said, I think bringing in relevant, sometimes potentially controversial issues, is beneficial and more likely to engage students than not. On that note, if Trump is the GOP nominee, I predict that he will give us huge amounts of material to discuss in class. This election year, we are seeing vastly diverse uses of rhetoric by each of the candidates, which makes me think my assignment idea will work well.

Meaningful Lessons

Essentially, I plan to create an activity that can be modified and executed repeatedly throughout the semester in which we do close readings and reflect, as Berthoff suggests, on various texts in order to bring abstraction into the classroom. In this activity, we will first watch a clip/ view an image/ read an article as a class. A video clip could be of a speech or an interview like the Jimmy Kimmel/ Trump one featured above, or it could be an ad from a company or a PSA from a human rights organization. The subject matter will be contingent upon what we're discussing in class at the time.

After that, the students will break into small groups, prompted with Berthoff's HDWDWW?, and dialogue about their responses. In some instances, like with political speeches, they might be asked to pinpoint a theme or rhetorical strategies in their discussion. After meeting in groups, we will reconvene and discuss our findings. This type of exercise would bring in perception and dialogue, and it would also address important social issues that might challenge students to think analytically for themselves. Making meaning in that situation can lead to them making more meaning in future experiences.

"What we must learn to do is to show students how to do what they already do so cleverly in order to learn how to move from abstraction in the non-discursive mode to discursive abstraction, to generalization" (750-51).

Society of Social Media

Reading this quote, I thought about the ways in which students cleverly think abstractly outside of classes, as opposed to how students did thirty years ago when the article was written. Today, we have access to far more technology that shapes how we interact with the world. As Berthoff's essay indicates, abstraction is all about meaningful experience. With social media and technology playing such a great role in our every day lives, they should be incorporated into the move mentioned above. Activities like the one I have planned could easily be adapted, and we could look at the social media accounts of politicians, organizations, and companies, asking the same sorts of questions. Students can also learn from this routine to consider what they post rhetorically to determine what the post says and does, having a lasting effect on how they experience and name the world.

final thoughts

Berthoff's piece, like many of essays we have read throughout the semester, calls into question the assumptions underlying teaching pedagogy. In that sense, her work is relevant. Also relevant is her optimism about the future of teaching. We have the unique opportunity of helping students learn to express their experiences and perspectives meaningfully as we, like Berthoff concludes, "give our students back their language" (755).


Berthoff Triangle. Digital image. Actes Sémiotiques. 2 Feb. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Berthoff, Ann E. "Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning." College English 46.8 (1984): 743-55.

Nerdwriter1. “How Donald Trump Answers A Question.” Online video clip. Youtube. 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 26 April 2016.

Piaget Stages. Digital image. Pinterest. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Purple triangles. Digital image. Freepik. Freepik. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Tree letters. Digital image. Cambridge Extra. 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.


Created with images by return the sun - "I ♥ Abstraction"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.