Like many (perhaps most) teachers of writing in the United States, I have been disillusioned, disheartened, and increasingly disturbed by the mean-spirited political discourse coming from the president and his administration, and I’ve been nearly overwhelmed by the cynicism and hypocrisy of the Congress. But with every new attack on the truth, on ethical behavior, and on the principles of justice and fairness for all, not just the few, I renew my commitment to the teaching of rhetoric. And I don’t mean teaching logical fallacies or proper style or Toulmin argument, though all of these have a place in a course on rhetoric. What I do mean is teaching rhetoric as the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication, as a way to live well and honestly in this world, and as a guide to coming to sound conclusions and to sharing those conclusions with others in respectful ways.
I’m concerned that as writing courses get cut and trimmed and squeezed (some schools now have only one required writing course and few elective ones; some have none), that teachers of writing may feel that they don’t have time or space for teaching rhetoric: it’s all they can do to guide students through the construction of major writing assignments and provide them with detailed, constructive feedback. And such assignments and feedback on those assignments are very important, but if those assignments, those pieces of writing, are seen simply as assignments, things to be completed and moved on from, then we’ve missed an opportunity to embed them in rhetorical theory and practice. It’s better, I believe, to have fewer assignments and to embed them in clear rhetorical situations, ideally ones chosen and explored by the students themselves, than to leave out attention to rhetorical contexts that shape any piece of writing (or speaking).
That means taking time to explain a little about rhetoric’s history, to give examples of how rhetorical principles and strategies have worked to empower truths and expose lies, and to ask students how firmly they stand behind the words that they write and how much ownership of and responsibility for those words they take. In short, teaching rhetoric in our writing classes leads us to ask students to examine their own positions, their own ethics, their own commitments. And doing so, I believe, leads students not only to better writing and communication, but also to better understanding of the role they can play in unmasking lies and disinformation, in rejecting hypocrisy and cynicism, and in upholding public commitment to truth and to verifiable facts. Imagine how public and political discourse would change if we adopted these principles and lived by them!
As always, thinking about students and everything they have to offer us is my antidote for despair, as is teaching rhetoric!
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