Rhetorical Distortions in the Classroom

Talking this morning with people from Student Affairs once again connected me to the classroom as a place, a topoi, a site of inquiry, and possibly the most occupied and least thought about space on campus for most people. 

We suffer from an addiction to materiality. We turn all of our investigative power toward the material, treating its pulling apart or pasting together as the source of knowledge. This comes out in pedagogy with our obsession with the recall of fact via the production of text, usually giant final papers that are for an audience of one person. 

Many undergraduates at my spot talk in May about the number of 20-25 page papers they have to complete for an exam. There's great pleasure in the complaining, and faculty take great pleasure in the intensity and the perception of hardness that comes with such a massive assignment. It's easy to point to such a thing and say "this is what I do" in order to verify that one is a student or a teacher. But this pointing provides comfort and certainty, and it's questionable whether such assignments provide learning. 

The uncertainty of something like a debate is hard to point to, hard to produce when trying to prove one is a serious, skilled teacher. Materiality is missing from speech. It's ephemeral nature is what makes it work. A document feels more real (although a well-written paper contains the potential for such uncertainty as well) and can be handled in a way that allows a simple connection between physical presence and seriousness/importance. 

Our addiction to materiality as the evidence of hard, good teaching excludes uncertain, ephemeral assignments like debates. Debates don't seem "real" or "serious" - after all they are a bunch of words. Papers seem this way too but are easier to fit into the category of proof due to this addiction.

Trying to write about this now, but it's hard. Bob Thurman's criticism of Western science as "scientific materialism" is a good place to start, but it's tough to comment on the thing you are immersed in, i.e. air (which might explain some of the difficulty in persuading people about Global Warming). Unless things are grounded in the study of materiality and material existence (as opposed to spiritual, or some other form) they don't have value. Particularly, I am struck with the notion that the classroom and our writing/research must be distinct.

RSA is still with me, and I'm still pondering it. The most powerful take-away is in performance about teaching, and the large gulf between composition rhetoric scholars ("compositionists") and speech comm rhetoric scholars ("rhetoricians"). These labels are pretty problematic, because there's no reason one couldn't be either one or both, but there are some big differences along these lines that I am thinking about. 

The major difference is in relation to the classroom. For rhetoricians, this is akin to jury duty, that public speaking is important civic service and we all must participate. We don't make it our life or the center of our study, but it's something that we must do - the price of doing what we want perhaps. The classroom rises up like a fly buzzing in our face as we try to appreciate the rhetorical vista of whatever we are currently obsessing about. For compositionists, the classroom is everything, like a tiny box that once you peer inside of it you see the most elegant and exquisite tiny diorama of the world - complete with all it's perfect little micro flaws and transgressions - and it makes it easier to see and discuss larger issues. Not one of the panels I saw about transfeminism or transnational thought was sans the question "How do we get students to think about this?" This question is of course, begged, which is why it is so powerful. The question of how to get students to think about these issues is really the question of how we get people to think about these issues, which is the question of persuasion/conviction. The first rhetorical question being, "How do I get you to get this?" 

Duty and micro-politics are of course, compatible, unless you feel like there's something else more important out there that the classroom halts you from doing. If we think of it as a no-space, or a bureaucratic space, we get a divide between our most interesting subject matter and our courses. Compositionists seem convinced (or perhaps they did not have to choose?) that the classroom is the heart of research: From invention to delivery they are standing there, in that place. Rhetoricians hardly ever discuss the classroom. It's seen as something that should not be involved in research. 

I'm not sure why this is how it is, but I'm trying to think of ways to become a diorama-builder in public speaking. The material addiction we have (and higher education as a whole) pushes back on this, but composition seems to have a nice balance working for them between assuaging this material production demand and raising the intellectual stakes and rhetorical challenge of the classroom - making it a site for new inquiry, not just a receptacle for a performance of what is known. More comfort with the ephemeral or non-material is needed here. And it's a tall order: I am asking for comfort with uncertainty.

Debate is my preferred tool here. No matter how confident and how certain you are that you have the best argument, you still lose. The loss is always present. You are uncertain whether you can use what you have written, you are uncertain whether or not you are saying it right, you are uncertain about the decision, and the reasons for it are never quite in perfect relation to the debate you experienced; there's always some interpretation going on, there's always a hermeneutic of adjudication. We don't ever get comfortable with this, but it spurs us toward more of the same, spurs us into more uncertainty. This ironically comes out as confidence that one has done the research and the necessary practice to win. But you could still lose. That's how winning works. Yin/Yang: The perfect debate. But meant to be a model of the universe. 

Ah. There we go. Another diorama. Mandalas. Maps of the universe. The globe. Devices that use the impossibility of what they are meant to be as creative impetus, or space to craft meaning. Value comes with a scale, a ratio. Nobody wants a 1:1 map. Nobody wants a 1:1 debate, evidenced by the amount of discourse surrounding the superiority of debaters in understanding argument (a misnomer, unless you subscribe to an ontological theory of argumentation). And nobody wants a 1:1 classroom either. But instead of finding value in the distortion as inventional resource for teaching, we scramble to fill up the classroom, make it the planet, the universe. We push for the 1:1.

Perhaps that's the bridge - the recognition that mappings value comes from its willful distortion of the complexity universe into a clean symbol. This is fraught with uncertainty about how it "really is." But at least we can look, we can think, we can find space to inquire to one another about that question. I think I'm a compositionist.