Why My Modern Rhetorical Theory Course Failed Spectacularly from a Roman Rhetorical Perspective

great job plane crash.jpg

Thankfully this semester is over and I can slowly, over time, forget the terrible course that I just "taught." In trying to figure out what went wrong I'm looking for various theoretical explanations. I want to avoid any and all explanations that blame the students, I.e. "You didn't spoon-feed them the material," "Where is your active learning?" "Where are the group assignments?" "I make my students post 2 comments a week on Blackboard to one another," etc.  I don't think such activities do more than replicate a mid-level job in a corporation where one is told by a boss of some kind to accomplish disconnected tasks by a certain date. They have no need to, and no desire to, ask why, or what is it for, or how does this fit in with who I am and what I do. They aren't good for students or for professors. Students don't understand and pretty much hate the work they are assigned; professors don't like the lack of engagement on assigned tasks and dismiss the students as incapable and beyond teaching. So we have students who dismiss professors as weird bosses that just make arbitrary demands and professors dismiss students as beyond teaching who just expect points and grades for doing the basics. 

I think I'm just going to have to provide my own analysis. If you don't like analysis of teaching then I have some sad news about this blog: There are going to be a lot of posts about analyzing failed teaching for a while. I have to figure out what went so terribly wrong with what I thought was a pretty well-designed class. The first question that comes to mind is the petitio - well-designed for who?

This leads me to the Roman point of view, something I've been reading a lot about in the hope that my public speaking course in the fall will be a mix of Roman pedagogy and modern declamation (tech conference unveilings, CES, and of course TED talks). So Roman pedagogy has a lot to say about how to get people motivated and interested in something that they might not be. It's the basic elements of a good declamation that can prove what I did wrong as a teacher. 

Exordium: The Way In, the Attention Part, the Getting everyone On Board Part

I took absolutely no time in the course to connect what I had laid out, what was motivating this course, and what the reasons for sustained attention would be. I didn't try to hook anyone, and I didn't try to get anyone excited or connected in a state of interest or worry that the course might be vital to them. I just talked about rhetoric from my own point of view and what questions I had. I didn't consider one of the central ways to get a class going: Treat your course as a petitio principi - the fallacy of the Begged Question (eg. Why is this a course?)


Narratio: The story so far, the facts of the case, the narrative frame for what's happened before you got here leading up to the current moment when I'm giving this speech.

I should have spent a few days on the history of rhetoric, why it matters, and such. Or I could have started with the big questions about persuasion and argument and what the responses have been up to the 1940s or so. Or I could even narrate my own life and experiences up to this point and why I'm now standing where I'm standing and thinking what I'm thinking. It doesn't matter, but there needs to be a backstory and there needs to be a plot. The students need to see what's happened before they walked into the room. And I'm not against lecture and direct instruction to accomplish this part. I did not do this. I assigned a book and said, "Let's read it!" - this was a huge mistake. There needs to be a story that leads us up to the reason why this is the book to read. 

Divisio - this is where the speaker brings their point of view in from the less controversial, more agreed upon narrative of the "facts" or the "story so far." They start to weigh in on parts of the story they don't agree with, or they lay out a decision or a derivative from the story that must be decided upon. 

This would be the elements of the course that take that story and challenge it from the texts that are read and discussed. This is where we decide, as a class, what our intervention is going to be in this story and this set of knowledge. This is the part where we advocate for the things in the story that are most or least important (depending on how you read those terms). This is also where the teacher can lay out the "quest" for the students, the completion goal, whatever that big question or decision should be. The important thing here is that there is a break in what the expected conclusion of the story might be. This is where the professor might also establish their point of view on what the class is doing or being or studying but it's done in a way that assumes possible challenge.

Confirmatio - Where the speaker supports and expands on the arguments laid out in the divisio. This is the place where proof lives and the convincing arguments are made. 

This is the part where professors should "profess" their views on things. I didn't do this so much as I'm concerned about setting an expectation for repetition. Maybe at other universities it's not this bad but where I work there's a very deep and very disciplined tie between student opinion and the professor's perception being on the same page. If a student writes or speaks an assignment that goes against the professor's view, the professor will most likely fail that student, even if the argument is well made. Furthermore, they will call the student "disrespectful" and really lay into them. Any question or challenge of professor opinion is treated as if it were treason. That being said, I do think there's value to the professor advocating for an interpretation or a point of view on the course and the readings. The trick is to figure out how to establish that great environment to begin with. Once you get that going, over time, you can be a bit more confirmatio in the sense of being an advocate. A page from the Roman declamation instructors would be to take the position no student wants to take and invite challenges from every student in the room. This also feels like martial arts to me. But the environment must be set up properly first for this to work. Make your case, profess your art, and use examples that are persuasive and make contact with the students. I did not do this at all, I let them express views that I questioned. They probably felt pretty adrift. 

Digressio - Where the orator takes opportunity to use the case he or she is arguing to make larger social commentary, or investigate the roots of a value or principle, or to praise or blame the ethics of an age or era. 

This is more of the metaphorical section of the critique of pedagogy, but I think of this as the place where the students inject their own material into the course - things happening on campus you might not be aware of, popular culture trends, music, film, etc. and the controversies around it. This is a place where connections to the current are made from the arguments that you establish from your field, from research, from the principles of the art that you profess. It's a planned digression, but one that shows the importance of the case as either a metonymy or a synecdoche. The particular thing you are studying in the course is a container or a part for a larger whole, that is, society, the state, life, thought, whatever it might be. A good teacher plans for digression which is not a contradiction: There is time reserved to make and explore the connection to the big questions as the audience (the students) sees them playing out. I failed to do this at all, thinking the students would pick up my questions, or find things interesting in the text themselves, decontextualized, or offered as self-contained readings. This is really where the course broke down. 

Peroration - the conclusion, where judgement is asked for and how judgement should be arrived at, where the speech and the case fit into thought on society and personal responsibility. What duties are and how to carry them out. What is the role and charge of a judge? 

This is the end of the course - what did we accomplish, how did we know we accomplished it, and what does it mean? How are we to judge the course, the materials in it, and what we produced? This is the end of any course - and I used to be much better at this years ago - where you go meta. I think that beyond a teaching evaluation, the audience should be called on to judge the merits of the case, i.e. is this course necessary and valuable? Does it matter? If so, how? If not, what points to what should be offered? Nowhere in my course did I call for judgement on what was happening. The only thing I called for was understanding - as vague and useless a term as any. Assessment people will always say, don't ask if they understood. Ask them something more specific. I didn't do this and should have asked for a vote on whether or not these theorists advanced work on the vital questions, and whether or not I was able to defend them (or prosecute them) in my role as professor/advocate. 

Reading back over this I feel depressed. So much opportunity wasted because I was careless. A course is much harder to put together and maintain than a book or a pet. You have to constantly nurture it. I really wasted this term and I'm very glad it's over. But now the challenge is to protect from this happening again. I think that practice is central, as well as a daily awareness and daily engagement on the focus of what you are doing. If the Roman metaphor holds up, it seems to me that the attention should be that of a trial attorney. This trial lasts 14 weeks, and at the end of it the quality of the jury's deliberation and verdict will be your fault, whichever way it goes. As Miyamoto Musashi wrote, "An accident that happens or is committed by your opponent should not be counted as a victory." Relying on the situation is not enough. Clear focus on making a good case for the class is a must.