Adapting ancient rhetorical theory for the contemporary classroom seems like a life-long project for me, for I'm always thinking about it, and reading up on it.

The general interest I have is not the adaptation of ancient rhetorics to our contemporary situation of more and better facts, information and reasoning, but adapting our contemporary belief that we have more and better facts, information and reasoning through the application of ancient rhetorics. For I think this assumption, that we have better materials to work with such as reason and science, is harmful. I think this understanding is different, not superior, to other modes of thinking about the world.

This is of course not an argument against science or reason. I like bridges and antibiotics; they are good things. However, the globalization of the methods used to make bridges and antibiotics to the social and political is a bad fit. The human world, as people such as Vico have pointed out before, is our construction mistaken for something natural. We make it, we put it out there, we forget we did, then we seek out how it works and adapt to it.

Often times it seems that assignments in speech or writing are graded on the presence of external aids to invention, such as books, essays, journal articles and the like. As long as the student has the required citations and they are of quality, then all is well. We often just don't have time to follow up on all of these citations to see if they are high quality or not. Often times, I find, they are way outside my expertise and knowledge and I have trouble evaluating them -- psych journals, for example.

I think alternatively, we should teach students first how to speak well about the experiences of daily life. The commonplaces and common values of our society, the personal experiences and the way that descriptions of certain places and events in life can arouse certain emotional content. Anecdotes that we can imagine happening to us or people we care for. A lot of times these are the only things that are available in casual conversation and persuasive situations. And I think our students aren't very good at measuring and applying their words in these moments.

I focus on developing artistic aids to invention first, then in the second part of the course I teach external aids to invention. I think both are necessary, don't get me wrong. But the intense focus on finding X number of sources seems like only half the formula. First they should master what they already know, then seek external knowledge. This also, I think, might help them narrow their library experience, giving them a better interaction with that vital institution than just wandering about looking for "sources" or "evidence."

My attempt at adapting ancient rhetorics is preservative as well as prescriptive. I like the idea of preserving a way of thinking and negotiating a polarized world without the easy reliance on the "rigor" of "immutable facts." I think maybe doing some of the ancient exercises helps students, at least a bit, negotiate the probable.

In Buddhist thought, words and speech can never convey enlightenment and cannot reduce suffering. Attachment to words creates suffering, as does all attachment. But to point this out, you must say something. You must speak to others about these things, but you must do it carefully and thoughtfully. This is why "Right Speech" is one of the acts on the Way to enlightenment.

Instead of trying to purify inadequate language with clean and true facts and information, perhaps we should accept language, and use it with measure, discipline and care. Perhaps ancient rhetorical exercises don't accomplish all this, but I think it's worth a try.