We Need Creative Platforming for Rhetoric

We need local community platforming for rhetors, speech, debates, and argument. We have to lead it and we need it locally. We cannot rely on privately owned corporate communication platforms to curate, cultivate, and teach people how to engage in public deliberation and argument.

In the past the Town Hall was the way of doing this. People would attend and listen for a while before engaging. If they engaged too early, the collective body would push back on that speech making it conform to the recognizable, the actionable. Rhetoric’s discipline is meant to make something palatable, in the way that taste disciplines the cook’s imagination and provides limits that don’t stifle, but engage creativity.

Most of our educational efforts toward critical thinking - perhaps over 90% I would guess - are about reception. We think we can solve problems of shallow thinking and poor inference by addressing reception alone. We tend to fall into a trap of thinking that production of text, either writing or speaking, is a part of the problem. We don’t think of a critical thinking exercise as creative.

This is often apparent in bad assignment design where students are asked to replicate and repeat good, valid sources that are determined by the instructor. They are not encouraged to think about what they would like to contribute to the conversation outside of how they are going to quote and cite the sources that they found. Professors often establish a hierarchy of quality sources without the necessary discussion about why one source might be better than another. For many students, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why academic journals would be superior to their own eyes and ears. This has to be explained in a way that they can understand. But too often this is set out as dogma, and people who reject research are laughed at. This doesn’t make them respect professors or peer reviewed work whatsoever.

Professors are very scared to grade quality. They would rather grade via a rubric that establishes points per source cited, APA format citations, and the like. This teaches students that these requirements are mere arbitrary, bureaucratic demands to a functionary. They are not invited to see themselves as potential scholars or as people who belong in the conversation. They are more like file clerks, and as such, are eager to see the rubric so they know where they can cut corners - not where they can excel. Professors have somehow come to the determination they are there to police students, to discipline them, to show them when they can’t follow rules or instructions, without the necessary compliment of helping them improve the quality of what they are crafting and making. Following rules is the secret major that all college students are forced to take. What about inquiry? What about trying something new based on the readings? Why all this reporting on other things said by others? What about the development of the future ortators, future producers of smart texts?

Quality is a whole different issue and it is often a source of anxiety for professors who have become very comfortable in pointing to point totals and math to justify grades to worried students. It’s as if they too depend on the rubric to find meaning in the assignments they give. They cannot just talk about how a paper or a speech was not great, and give advice for how to make it better. They also don’t realize they could just have the student do it over - why not? What is the point to having university classes? It’s certainly not to follow rubrics as if they were laws.

The value of the rubric is in helping your blindness as a person when you are grading. There are tons of biases that instructors could have toward student work. Keeping names off of assignments is one way to address this, but that harms the ability of the instructor to grade on a continuum - to recognize micro-improvements as they happen for each student. The second way is a rubric that you use as a professor and perhaps don’t share with the students. This ensures you give equal time to all aspects of the assignment rather than just to one or two things that bother you about it. The things that bother you often are cultural or issues of privilege; what you think is appropriate and good. A rubric can help you snap out of these biases and look toward improving that student’s production where it is and how it is manifest.

Platforming speeches seems like a good rubric-oriented move as it lets students do the one thing that they never get out of public speaking and the like - an audience. The audience is the most vital element of speech instruction that you can have. But we teach our courses like swimming without a pool, like basketball with no court to practice on, and like chemistry with no laboratory experience. These would be considered incomplete experiences at best, and perhaps not the courses in another sense.

This can be achieved with community involvement of some kind, or perhaps community partnerships with the university. This requires a lot of work and a lot of investment. There might not be a good way to attract audiences to have a look at student speeches. The other way might be web videos, but these would have to be made for a web audience, not just a lateral of the classroom speech with broken podium and dusty chalkboard. Maybe streaming is a good way to do it? This is a nascent thing, but there are many programs out there in forensics who do a show night of their top speeches for the community as a fundraiser. I wonder if this could be expanded to the entire curriculum of public speaking (as well as related courses) as a starting place to see how these speeches play with the presence of a manifest audience.

It then must expand to club status beyond the university to give people space to practice oral engagement with others on ideas. Local interaction and normalization of this is very important. Part of the practice is the normalization, locally, of rhetorical styles. The idea that one attends a debate or a display of good speeches as a normal part of community should come back. This could be funded by the university, but it could also be a civic project as well. This interaction - serving only as consumers of persuasive speech rather than the creators of arguments - is responsible for a lot of our failing in political conversation today. And it’s a failing of those who should be promoting it - the rhetoricians.