"Teaching in Rhetorical Terms"
To teach writing is to teach ways of being in the world. From public or civic spaces to classrooms, forums, and other academic sites, working with language in any form requires an attentiveness to how it creates or inhibits relationships among people—how it works rhetorically. Whether in first-year composition or in a graduate-level course on human rights rhetoric, I think and talk about writing as work that both fosters our intellectual engagement and invites us to consider our personal stakes, our investment in ourselves and our communities. In what follows, I offer several takes on what teaching writing in such rhetorical terms might look like.
Character, credibility, spirit. In all writing courses, I challenge my students to become conscious of their ethos, that is, not only the way they present themselves to others, though certainly rhetorical awareness is desirable, but also what sort of spirit informs their character and the communities to which they belong. In Engl 335: Rhetoric & Writing and Engl 338: Environmental Rhetoric, for example, this entails a conversation about ethics. “What do you value?” we ask one another. What is at stake in attempting to gain adherence or assent from others? And later in the course: What local issues matter to us? What might it mean to attend to rhetoric’s circulation in our community, and what does that demand from us, as participants and residents? As their comments on the SETs suggest, students appreciate the opportunity to consider rhetoric in everyday contexts and through a range of media. From the work of studying rhetoric as a discipline to the process of “remediating” texts into new rhetorical forms, in these courses I invite students to recognize that the world is comprised of such things as symbols, and the challenge we must take up—every one of us—is to produce texts that reveal something of ourselves and the communities in which we take part.
In Engl 130: Academic Writing, both the typically-sized writing course and the 90-person “Jumbo,” ethos invokes both character and credibility. In the context of conversations about source use, the relationship between claims and evidence, even the rhetorical situation of writing emails to one’s instructor, we discuss ethos as an active and often strategic practice that is deeply grounded in situations within and outside the academy. Connecting evidence to claims, as a student once pointed out, only happens if there is actually a relationship there. Ethos reveals something that both already exists and undergoes continuous cultivation. First-year college students are sometimes unsure of their place in the world, and understandably so. Our conversations about ethos thus also center on how to show others what we’re about. To develop students’ academic literacies, we read assignment sheets together and analyze them as purpose-driven texts. I invite students to own their informed ideas and perspectives by making texts that advocate for causes and positions. In writing assignments, I ask students to demonstrate the depth of their analysis through the insightful and careful use of evidence. And all of that is ethos work: it says something about their writerly authority and their ability to read, respond to, and make texts. In Environmental Rhetoric’s final Digital Storytelling Project, students must consider both the environmental issue whose story needs telling and the expectations of specific audiences outside the classroom. A student’s digital framing of their “Zero Waste Challenge,” for example, might be read by any number of people interested in plastic pollution and the environment. Ethos is an ongoing practice of self-analysis and social engagement, and as such it asks students to begin noticing the ways in which they matter to others.
I have more than once been startled by the keen intuition of 18-year-olds. The Greek word phronesis refers to what we might call “practical wisdom” or the starting point for meaningful, change-driven action. But it is also an awareness of that mode of action. So phronesis invokes a kind of active mindfulness that acknowledges the possibility of contributing to the world—a messy and idealistic idea, to be sure, but a delightful one. And freshmen already know something of this. Perhaps some have not yet developed the prudent part of phronesis, but this readiness for active change brims over in discussions of critical moments in the writing classroom, like the problem of melting ice caps or limited plastic recycling options, as well as in debates over human rights issues like education access, interrogational torture, and incarceration.
Through phronesis we recognize ourselves as capable of changing something about ourselves and our communities, but we also cultivate an ethic of care and carefulness. And this should extend into the classroom. We practice slowing down. We think and talk about not only what we think but how we think, and we ask a lot of questions. We focus on particulars by disassembling essays, images, and robust digital texts to discover how they are put together. And we make them ourselves. I have found that students value such possibilities for engagement. As students have commented about Engl 335: Rhetoric & Writing and Engl 338: Environmental Rhetoric, group work, class discussions, and carefully scaffolded activities not only help make difficult concepts more understandable but provide more robust opportunities for applying and complicating those ideas, too. It is important to me that students find ways of engaging meaningfully in class activities and with course texts, especially first generation students who are carving out a new educational path. In Academic Writing and Rhetoric courses alike, this means giving students the time and support to cultivate their own work, whether individually or in groups. In the 90-person “Jumbo” Engl 130, we all have the benefit of embedded writing mentors who support students’ projects and themselves contribute to our inventive community of learners. The mentors and I invite students to see their analyses and advocacy work, and the writing that manifests their interpretative labor, as forms of action that both take time and contribute something new.
Mindfulness in action extends to broader issues, as well. For advanced undergraduates in Environmental Rhetoric and Rhetoric & Writing, phronesis means making the big, the abstract, the global manageable. Here I ask students to not only compose their own rhetorically-savvy texts but also begin recognizing any works they might design as in conversation with texts and ideas already in circulation. For their Rhetoric & Writing remediation project, which comes on the heels of our unit on women’s rhetoric, students work in teams to remediate, or remake, an already-existing text. Students choose texts by such figures as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Helene Cixous, or Michelle Obama, and rework that text into a new form or genre. They then present their projects—which, in past semesters, ranged from short films to zines to children’s books to Twitter feeds—to the rest of the class. At stake in such work, however, are questions of purpose and meaning-making. How might one make a speech from the 1800s meaningful to a contemporary audience? What could be changed or left out? Where might persuasion fit in, given our current sociopolitical climate? In remediating the rhetoric and genre of particular texts, students become more mindful of the capacity for effecting change through rhetorical means. I am invested in expanding opportunities for students to study rhetoric, building research archives, nurturing their independent and collaborative research projects, and raising awareness about the relevance of scholarly study for understanding both local and global concerns.
As many of us know all too well, writing is a skill that must be honed over time. But writing also means embracing uncertainty. Writing is a risk. Kairos, or timeliness, refers to the spur of the moment and our active invention of ourselves through language. For teachers novice and experienced, kairos can mean letting the silence stand and waiting for students to decide it is the right time to speak. In class discussion, as well as in our comments on students’ writing, we must learn to identify that moment to listen, that moment to praise, and that moment to question. A student in Engl 335 commented once that they appreciated how I made “each and every class a dialogue between students, the instructor, and the material.” Another remarked that I “took the class’s comments seriously”; graduate students, too, appreciate that I “[make] them feel heard” and “[value] what they have to say.” It matters to students when instructors pause to take the pulse of the room, so to speak. In the “Jumbo,” which seems to have a slower inertia than smaller classes, timing is especially important. Our goal should be to recognize and, hopefully, create moments that allow not merely good, but interesting, relevant, writing to happen and novel ideas to circulate.
I end with kairos to emphasize the sharpness, the intervention, the connection to life that language affords. Writing is lively work. Kairos means recognizing the time to speak or write and inventing that moment, if it doesn’t already exist. Kairos can also be a source of pleasure—a thrust into the unknown—that moment of sublime joy sparked by invention. From first-year writing courses, to work with graduate T.A.s, to advanced composition and rhetoric, my philosophy of teaching is informed by my conviction that composing, whether it be composing an essay with words or making an argument by images or using storytelling to connect with an audience, is one of our most meaningful and hopeful ways of being in the world. While intellectual engagement is undeniably a kind of labor, it should also resonate in the world. As one of the graduate students in Engl 692: Human Rights Rhetorics reflected: “The work we do in this class is important and worth looking at and contemplating.” Kairos joins the work of the college classroom to the work we perform elsewhere, whether in public deliberation or in other academic spaces, to emphasize how our writing and our students’ writing reverberates in time and creates opportunities for—or is itself—meaningful action.