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Back to the Future

Web tool from USC College Writing Program helps students write better essays by thinking like Aristotle.

Back to the Future

Faculty from the USC College Writing Program have developed a Web page harnessing new online tools to teach one of the oldest rhetorical techniques.

The page contains widgets, or portable Web applications, that teach an ancient prewriting technique called "the topoi.” The page’s modules include video of a classroom lecture, video of a student-teacher conference and a series of interactive tools for developing essay ideas.

By collecting and sharing a diverse set of learning tools in a single place, the topoi page meets the needs of students with a wide range of learning styles. The widgets, aimed at high school or college-aged students, may be moved to any course page, blog or social-networking site.

“We’re basically saying, ‘Steal my content,’ ” said Mark Marino, assistant professor (teaching) in USC College, who was the primary developer of the topoi page. “Our goals were to create a toolbox focused on a single lesson, and to make the tools easy for teachers and students to appropriate and adapt.

“It’s ‘grab the code and go’: rip, reuse, remix.” Marino continued. “The Web gives anyone the flexibility to disseminate the tools we’ve developed.”

As part of university general-education requirements, the Writing Program provides instruction in composition to all USC undergraduates.

Literary topoi are an ancient rhetorical framework originally attributed to Aristotle. Using the topoi, students learn to look at a subject through various analytical lenses. The topoi are commonly taught in the curriculum of many first-year composition courses across the nation.

The page presents an innovative use of Pageflakes, a Web service typically used to create personalized online portals based on users’ personal interests.

Because the widgets are released under a Creative Commons license, faculty may use, distribute and alter these tools.

“This project takes up the ethos of open universities, contributing to a set of freely available resources for students and faculty,” Kevin Egan, assistant professor (teaching) in USC College and co-developer of the topoi page. “We hope one day soon students will assemble their own courses out of widgets from many institutions — not as a replacement for the teacher-student relationship, but as an enhancement to the learning process.”

The Writing Center’s Widgetbox standalone module on topoi can be used on Facebook, Blogger, Wordpress and other Web pages. This module serves as a starting point for students interested in learning more about the topoi.

These widgets were created by Marino and Egan in collaboration with Jack Blum, senior associate director of the Writing Program, and Mira Zimet from the USC College Office of Communication.