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CAROLYN NIELSEN
JILL HECKATHORN
NICOLE BROWN
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Nicole Brown
Department of English

 

 

Writing for Discovery and Change

Introduction

There are two common characteristics of tolerance that I articulate in my teaching of rhetoric, technical writing and social change. The first is the need for a respectful and fair attitude towards others. The second is that this respectful and fair attitude is directed towards those whose beliefs and opinions differ from our own.

As a teacher of writing at Western, I am fortunate to work closely with students from across all of the colleges and most departments at the 300- and 400-level. Most of the students enrolled are close to graduation, when most of their other courses are enrolled with students from similar disciplines and with similar interests, skills, goals and even worldviews. Each student, regardless of their disciplinary background, brings with them a desire to communicate what it is they care about and what inspires them to do the work that they do. The fields of rhetoric and technical writing guide students through the creation and distribution of information that is accessible and useful to audiences. When the class demographic creates an opportunity for students to dialogue with students coming from very different disciplinary backgrounds than their own, the task of writing becomes synchronous with the teaching of tolerance--the ability to suspend your own understanding of the world long enough and clearly enough to see another's perspective as applicable as your own.

Another contextual element that informs my pedagogy is the important role that community-based projects have in the courses I teach. While some courses more heavily rely upon service learning--such as Internship in English: Professional Identity--most writing assignments in my courses are directed towards an audience more broad and complex than if the students were writing primarily to me, as the instructor of the course. For example, students in the 200-level Writing: Discovery and Change are encouraged to discover, research and publicly communicate through writing on some topic of social change that interests them. Through assignments such as this, students enter into conversation with audiences that hold different life experiences, values and expectations for the writing than those held by the students.

However, creating a classroom environment where a student is comfortable shaping their understanding of tolerance requires much more than having access to people that hold different viewpoints than your own. The teaching methods that shape the practice of tolerance in the classroom include: the process of dialogue, debate and discussion; the practice of rhetorical analysis; the production and distribution of persuasive discourse; and what I have come to refer to as "being rhetoric."

Rhetoric and the Process of Dialogue

Aristotle's definition of rhetoric is one of the foundations from which I teach dialogue in the classroom--"the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." In this definition, Aristotle defines rhetoric as an ability--a process--and not a finished text. When he refers to "the available means of persuasion" he does not mean one available means, or the most dominant means of persuasion, or the most personal means of persuasion. Rather, "each particular case" commits the rhetor to considering ALL of the available means of persuasion--both those that they agree with and those that may be far removed from their understandings or values of the subject matter. For Aristotle, only after considering all of the available means of persuasion available to them can a rhetor ethically and rhetorically form an argument on the subject matter being discussed.

Complimentary to this understanding of rhetoric, I consciously create classroom conversations and writing activities structured around the use of dialogue, debate and/or discussion:

  • Similar to Aristotle's criteria for rhetoric, dialogue is the act of brainstorming every possible claim, understanding or arguing a topic that the students have access to representing. When practicing dialogue, the recognition and allowance of the free expression of divergent views is morally obligatory, and it is the responsibility of those participating in the dialogue to create space and to include viewpoints with which they may disagree.
  • The foundation of debate in the classes that I teach goes something like this: people disagree, and while we choose to disagree, we should disagree agreeably. I emphasize to students that this view of debate does not mean that all we are left with is opinion, because if this were the case then dialogue and debate would be meaningless. At the same time, disagreement is not aligned with coercion or the forcing of one's beliefs on somebody else.
  • Discussion enables us to continue to respect other people's right to hold different views than our own, while also integrating our new understanding of a topic within our own worldview. Moving towards discussion, I discourage students to act in conformity with cultural and political views and assumptions without engaging in classroom discussions or writing activities that are critical of these views.

By encouraging students to utilize these communication techniques to examine all reasonable sides to a controversial issue, they are able to consider and address counter arguments in their strongest formulations.

The Practice of Rhetorical Analysis

Being tolerant does not mean acquiescing to the intolerable; it does not mean covering up disrespect; it does not mean coddling the aggressor or disguising aggression. Tolerance is the virtue that teaches us to live with the different. It teaches us to learn from and respect the different.

–Theory of Society, Paulo Freire

Analysis is an important step in the process of putting into practice dialogue, debate and discussion in a way that contributes to an atmosphere for tolerance in the classroom. During classroom conversations and writing activities, I emphasize that tolerance is not practiced in a climate of irresponsibility, where we simply listen without forms of analysis that leads us to active and engaged negotiation and [de]construction of our understanding of a topic. The act of tolerating requires a climate in which rhetorical analysis is introduced, encouraged and practiced in a way that ensures that tolerance is not coexistence with the intolerable. To facilitate this, I introduce students to a range of methodologies for rhetorical analysis. For example, in The Visual Rhetoric of U.S. Social Movements, students deconstruct dominant discourse or meta narratives on particular social groups or issues by researching and making visible the more silenced discourses or perspectives that were not previously represented in the dominant worldview or their own understanding of the subject matter being discussed.

Similarly, in Introduction to Technical Writing, students write instructions or interpretive materials to assist readers or "users" of information with either completing a task or understanding a concept that is new to them. An important part of the students' writing process is user testing, which places the student writers in dialogue with people that are actual representatives of the audiences their document has been produced to inform. This part of the writing process enables students to assess how well they understand the values, expectations and needs of the audience in a particular communication context and how well these match with the purpose they have identified for themselves as writers. Through this process, it is imperative that the writer is willing to adjust their own perceptions and understandings of the audience's expectations and needs, given the feedback they receive on their writing. Likewise, the audience members engage with the writer and document with a willingness to be changed in some way by the new information provided. Through this process, audience members become co-creators of the discourse produced by the students, and the students get to consider advocating on behalf of their audience.

The Production and Distribution of Persuasive Discourse

“The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation.”

–Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, New York

Through the production and distribution of persuasive discourse, students are provided with the opportunity to exercise their critical and creative thinking skills and to listen to, respect and integrate the ideas of others into their spoken and written discourse. At the same time, an important characteristic of the practice of tolerance is the right to decline someone's claims or beliefs and to even counter them through words and action, while respecting another's right to say or embody difference. The production and distribution of persuasive discourse involves the coming together of people, the message and the work of being persuasive without forcing others to agree.

"Being Rhetoric"

Rhetoric is one of those words that in popular culture is almost never used positively and almost always [mis]used negatively. It is commonly associated with the unbalanced arguments of politicians and corporate heads and is used as a label to actually describe discourse that in actuality is devoid of the rhetorical appeals of logic, credibility and ethics. Therefore, asking students to consider what it means to "Be Rhetoric" can be a challenging preposition. I usually begin this conversation by drawing a connection between rhetoric and Paulo Freire's explanation of the "radical experience of tolerance," which he identifies as involving not a lack of principles or discipline, but rather an act "drenched in ethics."

Students

I was first faced with the idea of "Being Rhetoric" through a button that a mentor shared with me during my graduate studies at Purdue University. Over time, I came to understand the button to mean "seek information, stand for something and make your knowledge accessible and persuasive to others." Students enrolled in the Visual Rhetoric of U.S. Social Movements that I teach came to understand the concept well, based on the range of social change leaders and supporters that we studied through their speeches, marches, die-ins, videos, paintings, guerilla theater, etc. "Through classroom discussions, we came to the understanding that "Being Rhetoric" is when you agree to live your life in a way that develops and communicates your own beliefs in a way that invites and encourages others to integrate their worldview with your own."

It was understanding like this by the students that ultimately led me to recreating the "Be Rhetoric" button to share with students, only it now contains a Bee covered in pollen with the word Rhetoric below it. On the last day of class, we had the honor of closing the course with a visit by a Tlingit grandmother and her articulation of the American Indian Movement as the right to practice and communicate their oral and visual traditions. Keeping with the high value that I place on storytelling in the classroom, I'd like to close with what she shared with the students on our last day of class, referring to the teaching of the Bee:

Flower

The bee shares the offering of the antidote. It transforms pollen from triggering an allergic reaction to soothing an allergic response. The bee is a highly capable communicator, able to work harmoniously among a hive of thousands. While it can certainly choose to sting, it instead is astutely aware of the important work of entering into agreement with its environment. By dedicating its days to pollination, it sustains its self while also facilitating the setting of fruit and the development of the seeds that lead to new life. It facilitates interaction among flowers and trees, transforming it self, its community and all that it interacts with in the process.

The practice of tolerance calls upon us to move beyond open-mindedness of another's differences and instead it leads us towards the embodiment of open-minded acts of dialogue, debate, discussion, understanding and action.


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