Power of WordsThis is the fourth post in the the series I am doing discussing readings from my Foundations of Composition and Rhetoric Class. The first two posts (here and here) concerned Kenneth Burke‘s A Rhetoric of Motives. Last week, however, I began discussing A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. In last week’s post, I discussed my fraught relationship to Critical Pedagogy. This week I want to riff off of David Flemming’s excellent chapter entitled “Rhetoric and Argumentation.” This is the only chapter in the book with which I agree wholeheartedly. I would place myself (as best I know how given my relative newness to the field) in this classical/civic rhetoric informed composition pedagogy.

As I mentioned in my post last week, a project that I began in my Medieval and Renaissance Rhetoric class  last semester was seeing how humanistic rhetorics can be helpful in the composition classroom. I specifically  looked at Erasmus and his development of the classical notion of decorum. For this post, I thought I would take some of what I had written before and re-purpose it for discussion on the blog. What I have here is largely taken, though in a markedly revised form, from my seminar paper last semester. What inspired me to  dig this back out was Flemming’s seven step “democratic activity.” He explains that he “began to see [his] class as a kind of jury, to which [he] presented cases, provided resources for exploration, organized debates, so different sides could be aired, and asked for a final decision, all while give practice in complex, sophisticated, argumentative literacies” (260). For my part, I want to talk about how the classical idea ofdecorum can aid in the creation of the kind of classroom that Flemming describes, the kind of classroom I want to construct.

Excellence as a rhetor requires one be aware of one’s context. Teaching students about the rhetorical situation as a fiction for their papers is not enough. We must also teach students about the very real rhetorical situation of the classroom and of society at large. While the classroom is frequently perceived by students as an artifice, a formal space in which they acquire the goods offered by the instructor, the classroom is actually a very real space in which students possess unchosen obligations to the people around them. Respect is owed to all people, and respect requires listening to (taking to heart) what others are saying. It also requires subordinating oneself to another person. This is inherently in conflict with the individualist, triumphalist ideologies that slow down the progress of a class. Rather than assuming that students will be willing to comply with our demands, we must have open dialogue with our students about the expectations for participation in the classroom’s very real rhetorical situation. For, if we are going to invoke the rhetorical tradition in our pedagogies, then we need to be prepared to teach the values associated with citizenship. In my context, a diverse, pluralistic, democratic, and inclusive classroom and society, the obligations required by decorum are rooted in respect for difference. It must be clear to students that the requirements of decorum are not so much moral principles of obligation, but rather what one needs to do if one is interested in effective and persuasive communication. Dogmatic ideology has no place in our context because being strident is wildly unpersuasive.

Not only do we need to teach students to be aware of the very real social and rhetorical context of the classroom, but we need to somehow involve students as co-creators of the classroom’s social and political life. If the rhetorical tradition carries any weight, then it is true that character is actually important to persuasion. It is not enough that our students be able to analyze an audience and decide on the best means of persuasion (that is nothing more than sophistry re-created). Rather, our students should have themselves invested in their work. They should be committed. It requires that we and our students proactively engage with each other, with the material, and with the structure of the classroom. Half of decorum is paying attention to what is going on in one’s context. The other half is carefully shaping that context so as best to communicate effectively in order to actively participate in the pursuit of truth.

This, of course, requires convincing students that the discussion held in class, and the papers written for the class, are actually significant. It further requires the instructor and the students to go to great lengths to create  safe spaces in which personal engagement can be demanded from the students. It requires demanding that engagement not through threat of a failing grade, but through emphasizing the importance of pursuing the truth together, through attempting to reach consensus. It requires creating situations in which students attempt to persuade each other of a salient point. Inviting students to actively collaborate in the pursuit of truth, while  nevertheless expecting them to try to persuade each other, at once suspends the function of ideology and presses well beyond the mild ability of politeness to restrain ideology. And, of course, all of this is regulated by the exacting demands of a decorum concerned with safeguarding the well-being of every participant.

In the end, rhetoric has the unique ability and opportunity to assist in banishing dogmatic ideology from the classroom. While our pedagogies have tended to emphasize persuasion, the appeals, and consideration of audience in the creation of texts in the classroom, we have largely left decorum behind. But contentiodescends into overly-agonistic rhetoric if unchecked by decorum. Indeed, our loss of decorum, our loss of the means to safeguard a space for the consensual discovery of truth, has left our classrooms with a truncated rhetoric unmoored from its epistemology and unable to offer much more than some advice about convincing somebody of something. But if we steep ourselves in the humanists as they steeped themselves in the ancients, then we will be able to recover the holistic rhetoric that was synthesized in the renaissance. In such a recovery, we are likely to discover the tools to build a rhetoric that writes across ideology toward truth. The first step is acknowledging our classrooms as legitimate rhetorical situations.