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“A More Civil and Honest Discourse”

posted: 1.24.11 by archived

The shooting in Tucson, Arizona three weeks ago was extremely disturbing.  As a teacher of writing, rhetoric, and argumentation, I feel particularly upset about the ways this event has been linked to certain agonistic styles of discourse.  I am not trying to figure out what happened or why.  In some ways, I agree with Sarah Palin and Jon Stewart that this senseless violence was not the direct result of political rhetoric. But I also agree with Barack Obama who suggested that we need a “more civil and honest public discourse.” I’m sure that many BITS readers, like me, have been hoping for better ways to engage differences of opinion for a long time. I’ve never wanted to teach argument in traditional ways – I hope that teaching argument allows students to open their minds to other ideas and viewpoints, not that it just teaches students how to more strongly support what they already believe, or to cut down other opinions.

So I have a few ideas to share.

One assignment that I strongly believe in is the multi-vocal, multi-genre research paper.  Laura Brady, a friend and my former colleague at West Virginia University, first showed me this assignment.  The version that we developed with the help of all of the writing teachers at WVU is a variation of Tom Romano’s work, filtered through Johnson and Moneysmith and Julie Jung. One virtue of the assignment is that, instead of starting with a single opinion, students begin with an issue, and then they research multiple viewpoints on the issue, and write a paper in the multiple voices of 3-4 people whose opinions on the issue diverge.  I have attached an example assignment prompt for you to look over.

This assignment later evolved into a stakeholder research paper, more overtly pushing students to discover a range of viewpoints, and this time looking specifically for the voices and perspectives of people who are directly impacted by an issue.  I’ve attached that prompt too.

Of course, just looking at multiple viewpoints and stakeholders won’t lead to a more honest and civil discourse.  Lots of the time, when I teach the above-mentioned assignments, students probably feel this is just an academic exercise.  Some probably actually feel dishonest, no matter how I frame the imaginative aspects of the assignments.  But I’ll keep trying to teach argument differently.  Because outside of the classroom, in the media, students aren’t seeing a lot of diversity of opinion.  (There have been a few exceptions to this partisan rule—like the New York TimesRoom For Debate” series—also a great teaching tool.)  Maybe things will change. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that it is worthwhile to ask students to consider opposing views, and to ask students to look at who an issue impacts, especially when these stakeholders are people they wouldn’t normal meet and converse with.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Jay Dolmage
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5 Responses to ““A More Civil and Honest Discourse””

  1. Jack Solomon Says:

    A broadly considered employment of Rogerian argument would do our students, and our country, much good.

  2. Jay Dolmage, U.Waterloo Says:

    I agree Jack — do you do a Rogerian assignment in your classes?

  3. Jack Solomon Says:

    Actually, I’m the popular culture specialist specialist on the Signs of Life team (Sonia Maasik is the composition specialist), and I do not actually teach composition classes. What I do try to impart, rhetorically, to my students (who of course write papers) is that having an opinion (interpretive or otherwise) is not itself sufficient for good analytic argument. There must not only be evidence presented to support the argument but also the anticipation of possible reasonable objections to one’s position. In my upcoming blog for Bits, I try to give a brief example of this by offering two different interpretations of the Hollywood tendency to repeat existing movies and otherwise engage in sequel-mania (sorry for the coinage). One of those interpretations is somewhat flattering to Hollywood; the other isn’t. I present both, and then briefly explain why I choose the interpretation I choose.

    That isn’t precisely Rogerian, but in a broad sense it is because I take as a common ground the respectability and validity of the position that I myself do not take. That’s something I endeavor to impart to my students.

  4. Derrick Stewart, Tennessee Tech Says:

    Wonderful stuff. Thanks for posting the prompts!

  5. Jay Dolmage, U.Waterloo Says:

    Derrick — thanks!

    Jack — I agree — and I like this phrasing: “take as a common ground the respectability and validity of the position that I myself do not take.”