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Why Go to RSA?

posted: 6.1.12 by Andrea Lunsford

I just returned from the biennial Rhetoric Society of America conference, held this year in Philadelphia and chaired with grace and aplomb by Krista Ratcliffe (author of very important works on the power of rhetorical listening).  I certainly did my fair share of listening, and I hope I did so rhetorically, really hearing what others had to say.

Many panels were worth noting—and the keynote speeches (one by Jacqueline Jones Royster and the other by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson) were both knockouts.  I loved moving from session to session, hearing brand new as well as seasoned scholars share their work.  So there were many panels I could report on.  But one that struck me in particular was on The Public Work of Rhetoric, and it featured presentations by David Coogan, Linda Flower, Eli Goldblatt, Phyllis Ryder, Katie Kavanagh O’Neill, David Seitz, and David Landes.  Each speaker focused on a program or curriculum or assignment that did some important public work:  Coogan described his collaboration with administrators and inmates at the Richmond City Jail (check out www.openminds.vcu.edu), trying to answer the question of how rhetoric can act in the face of utter despair.  Linda Flower told us about the Community Think Tank, a program that refigures first generation and low-income students as “independent students,” how these students can themselves carry out important intercultural problem solving, and a whole lot more.

Katie O’Neill shared the curriculum she has developed for a six-week public speaking course that leads up to an assignment for students to present a persuasive speech that they then contribute to This I Believe, and David Seitz went on to describe his “This I USED to Believe” assignment, in which students examine and report on a belief that has changed for them.  His class focuses on rhetorical concepts, including that of ethos, and I was fascinated by his Ethos Self Assessment assignment in particular.  He said he is fairly laid back in class for the first few weeks, just observing how students interact—seeing who tweets or browses the web during class, who contributes and who doesn’t, who turns up late (or is always on time), who misses a peer review session, and so on.  Then about a month into the semester he gives the Ethos Self Assessment, asking students questions like “What has been your ethos in class?” “How do your classmates view you?” “Is your classroom ethos the same as your ethos at home, in your dorm, or at a party?  What’s the difference?”  “Considering these differences, would you like to be more consistent and why?”  I didn’t catch every question, but you get the picture.  The students respond in writing and then read their responses to three other class members, who then give them (honest and straightforward) feedback.  The students, David said, learn a lot from this exercise:  they begin to realize that they are making judgments based on ethos all the time, and they learn that other people are making judgments about their ethos all the time.  They begin to think more critically about self presentation—and, as David said, “things change in class after this assignment.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of just this one fascinating and useful set of presentations, so imagine this experience expanded over the four days I attended the conference and you get some small sense of how much I was able to learn at this one conference.  I know how hard it is for teachers to get to conferences:  often we don’t have travel money, or at least not enough to cover the expenses of air fare and a hotel, not to mention registration and food; it’s hard to find time to write and submit conference papers; and many of us get few if any reward or recognition for attending professional conferences.  But just when I think I’ll throw in the towel, that I’ll give up conference going, I have an experience like this one and realize, again, how much I have to gain by this kind of interaction with other teachers and scholars from around the country or even the world. On my way back to Stanford, I felt like I had just taken an intense seminar where every single hour I learned something new, almost all of which I could use to invigorate my teaching and scholarship.  And I got to do all this in the company of smart, witty, warm, generous colleagues.  So I’m still a fan of our conferences, and especially of RSA.  The 2014 meeting will be in San Antonio and plans are already underway.  In the meantime, the RSA institute for 2013 will be held a year from now at the University of Kansas. Maybe I’ll see you there?

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2 Responses to “Why Go to RSA?”

  1. Linda Flower, Carnegie Mellon Says:

    Andrea,
    As always i an inspired by your enthusiasm for teaching. Thanks for including the Public Work session in your reflections. I would just add that another thing I liked about the panel was that we came from both Communication and Rhetoric and Composition programs. It was great to see such common ground, not just in shared theory. I noticed the link to the Community Think Tank (and those independent students) didn’t work. You might try http://www.cmu.edu/thinktank
    Linda

  2. David Seitz, Penn State Says:

    Dear Andrea,

    I am flattered by this feedback, and am very glad that you enjoyed the panel. I hope we can cross paths someday (either at a conference or via email).

    Best wishes,
    David Seitz