Politics in the Classroom

Politics in the Classroom?

Listening in/observing the Republican and Democratic conventions has led me to think about the degree to which politics enters my classroom.  MLA held an entire conference on this question during the “culture wars,” and I remember giving a talk that attempted to sum up the sense of the meeting.  As I recall, while there was great disagreement—some were profound supporters of professorial activism; others determinedly against such actions—the consensus was that classrooms are political spaces in some sense:  the question is whether the teacher proselytizes or whether she and her class interrogate all sides of issues, as in rhetorical analysis.

A good and longtime friend and colleague, a staunch Republican who has gotten more and more conservative over the years, tells me that his students have no idea what his politics are.  In fact, he says, if they venture to discuss the issue at all they assume he is liberal-leaning.  But I wonder.  He is prone to use examples in his teaching that have very right-leaning views along with those that in some way criticize left wingers.  So I wonder whether his students may not read between the lines and be perfectly aware of his politics—even if they don’t say so to him.

This is an issue I think every teacher has to face and face squarely.  What is our role in the writing classroom, where we aim to teach rhetoric as the art of ethical persuasion and writing as a means of making good things happen in the world?  The role I choose is primarily analytic:  that is, I and my students look at texts of all kinds and analyze them for how they appeal to audiences and also try to figure out who those audience members are.  We select texts that are political briefs, political speeches, and political satires—along with informational essays, narrative essays, and so on. But especially in an election year, I want to take the opportunity to concentrate on the political process itself and on analyzing the rich array of texts before us.  I hope I can be as clear-headed and conscientious in my analysis of left-leaning pieces as I am of right-leaning ones.  But if my students ask me about my own politics, I won’t stonewall them.  Rather, I will spend just a little time telling them where I come from, politically (my family, e.g., comes from a swing-state in the Civil War, and they fought for the North and against slavery; they are resolutely committed to civil rights for all).  And I’m happy to describe my fundamental values and how they relate to my desire to be the best teacher I can.  Then I ask students to take a bit of time to write about where they come from politically:  doing so always brings out a diversity of opinions that can, if managed well by all of us, lead to insights in the group as a whole. 

This was certainly the case one year when I had the President of the Young Republicans in my class along with a very diverse set of classmates.  He was white and from a privileged family; others were African American, Chicano/a, Chinese, and Vietnamese.  We were in an election year then, as well, and when we began learning about rhetorical analysis, we looked at several political speeches coming from different viewpoints.  The Young Republican started out arguing dogmatically and analyzing from a very narrow viewpoint.  He was joined by several other students who, though not as dogmatic, leaned his way. But the rest of the class respectfully disagreed.  As we all understood rhetorical analysis more completely, their disagreements changed from the kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” thinking we are so familiar with, especially in first-year classes to much more nuanced and open thinking.  We had some bad patches, but all of us made a commitment to listen to one another rhetorically, as Krista Ratcliffe would have us do, and really HEAR what the other person is saying, really be open to what the author of the political speeches is saying, before we came to judgment. 

I was right in there with them the whole way, and I learned that I needed to listen better myself, to be as open as I thought I had been.  At the end of the term, a few minds had been changed, and while the Young Republican stayed committed to that ideology, he did so from a much more knowledgeable and nuanced stance.

So I am all for bringing politics into the classroom—if we do so rhetorically, ethically, and with respect for all opinions.  John Duffy has recently written about first-year writing classes as lessons in democracy and in global citizenship.  At its best, this is an aim of my writing classes—along with making sure that students become better able to understand, analyze, articulate, and interrogate their own positions.

Who knows what November 4 will bring.  But in the meantime, we have an absolute wealth of material to work with in our classrooms.  I’d like to hear your views on this subject and how you plan to use this election as an occasion for learning.



Who are the "true believers" today?

September 3, 2012  Who are the true believers today?

            I watched part of the Republican convention last week and some of the Democratic convention this week, and I must say I’ve found myself thinking more and more about rhetorical delivery, rhetorical analysis, and the power of words, even one word, in what many refer to as “the silly season”—the presidential campaign. 

            Certainly much of what we are seeing is silly: legislators jockeying for speaking positions or for a sound bite on the evening news; delegates rigged out in the most ridiculous outfits imaginable and making exaggerated claims on every side; what Eric Hoffer called “true believers,” those ideologues who hold a position, absolutely, to the death. These people are particularly dangerous, warned Hoffer—and he was right.  His 1951 The True Believer analyzed, and savagely critiqued, the political fanatic, the “true believer” who is not open to reason, debate, or dialogue. 

     I had read Hoffer’s book in the sixties, but I got reacquainted with him when his papers eventually came to Stanford and one of my colleague, along with her class, selected some texts for an exhibition and wrote all of the material to accompany them.  I remember standing in the lobby of the exhibit admiring the work of these first-year college students, talking with friends and parents who had come to take in the exhibit, and thinking of how influential Hoffer was in the sixties and seventies.  A longshoreman in San Francisco for some twenty-five years, Hoffer had also worked in the California vegetable fields, in restaurants, and other blue-collar jobs. Along the way, he managed to write at least ten books—and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

Hoffer saw clearly the power of words—for good or, especially, for ill.  His analysis of the psychology and the language of mass movements is still a remarkable read:  in it he shows how movements such as fascism use promises of a glorious future along with scare tactics to attract large groups of people who are likely, for a host of reasons he explores,  to fall under the sway of absolute “truths.”

I’ve met more than a few true believers in my lifetime, even in my own family—but we are now seeing great hoards of them gathering in Tampa and in Charlotte.  These are times for all teachers of rhetoric and of writing to be on our mental toes, listening and observing carefully, collecting examples of the strategies at work for attracting “true believers.”  Was Todd Akin appealing to such a group when he spoke of “legitimate rape”?  Who was President Obama appealing to when he said “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. . . .  If you own a business, you didn’t build that.”  What lies behind Governor Romney’s statement that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”

Of course these and other statements will be used by both sides in attack ads and other strategies aimed at eking out a victory on November 4.   But  I can’t help wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off looking closely at the people who respond to such appeals, trying to understand their motives and looking for ways to teach our students not only how to use language responsibly but also to recognize and learn to deal with “true believers.”

Evaluating Blogs

August 28, 2012


I’ve been following a conversation on the WPA list that you may have seen too:  a colleague had written in to ask for advice about queries she was getting from fellow faculty members about how to evaluate blogs.  She got many fine responses to her query, but the one that struck me as most valuable was posted by Jerry Nelms, from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Ohio State.  Here’s what he had to say

. . . to a faculty member asking me about assigning blogs:  What are the goals and learning objectives of your course and how does a blog either help students achieve those goals and learning objectives or assess students’ progress toward achieving those goals and learning objectives?  Are we talking about blogs that set forth arguments?  Blogs that are exploratory or reflective?  What are the learning objectives of the blog assignment—that is, what should the student blogger be able to do in her blog?

          Blogs can be one way of getting students engaged in what I want them to learn, but just arbitrarily assigning blogs without thinking about what I want students to learn from writing the blog can be a disaster, if for no other reason than that the students may have conceptualized “blogs” in ways that are different from the way I have conceptualized them.  In other words, I don’t see a big difference here in terms of the best practices in assigning writing between a blog and a report or an essay. So, I’d try to get the faculty member to see that

(1)    The writing should be contextualized in ways that reveal how the writing will be relevant to future writing contexts.

(2)     The writing should have a purpose and an appropriate audience.

(3)    The writing should reveal an appropriate ethos.

(4)    The assignment should clearly lay out any organizational or stylistic conventions that the writer needs to adhere to

(5)    The assignment also needs to clearly communicate any processes that the writer should adhere to (e.g., number of drafts, getting feedback, what to do with feedback, and so on).

         These “norms” seem to me to be a decent framework for creating a rubric for any academic writing, and so, if the faculty member wants to use a rubric for this assignment, I think that, together, we could make a good start at one in just a one-hour consultation.  But if the faculty member is looking for some “universal” blog rubric, I’m afraid I would disappoint her in my insistence that rubrics need to be specific to a particular assignment.

Nelms makes a number of important points here, beginning with his reminder to us that students often do not conceptualize assignments in the same way we do, or even define words in the same way we do.  In the 1980s, Linda Flower’s research revealed that students often have a discourse pattern that has been successful for them and, if so, they tend to apply it in almost any situation.  The one I remember from Flower’s research was the “gist and list” strategy for approaching an assignment:  a number of students in her study fell back on this strategy time and time again, even when it was not at all appropriate for the assignment.  Thus our first goal in giving assignments in our own classes, or helping fellow faculty member with theirs, is to get major terms out on the table for discussion—even as ubiquitous one as “blog.” 

            I also agree with Nelms when he recommends returning to fundamental rhetorical categories when assessing any piece of discourse.  Attention to purpose, audience, ethos, and kairos will always help to clarify assignments—or to carry them out.  In addition, he is spot on when he suggests that assessment rubrics should always grow out of the discussion of goals, purposes, and so on.  The rubric should always reflect the assignment, not the other way around.

            In my own classes where I’ve used blogs or wikis, we have needed to be very explicit about WHY we were using these forms of communication and to work together to understand what would represent excellence in their execution.  It’s been a huge learning curve for me since I first began working with new media writing in my classes—huge in the sense that I had to learn how to do such writing myself and then also huge in the sense that I had to think long and hard with my students about how such writing would be evaluated.  I could never use the same rubric for, say, a written academic argument, an oral performance, or a Website—unless the rubric were so general as to be pretty unhelpful. 

            So—if you’ve been thinking about this question of evaluating blogs or other forms of new media writing, please chime in with your best thinking!