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History and Rhetoric: The Case of Arizona

posted: 3.10.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Once upon a time, back in graduate school, we often discussed the place of political discussion in composition classrooms. Back then our textbooks included exemplar essays from 20th century political activists such as Clarence Darrow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Richard Wright.  Now, more than two decades later, I remain puzzled by the idea that we were required to teach essays by men who risked their careers (and their lives) for political activism, but that we ourselves, as new teaching associates at our institution, ought to consider staying silent on similar questions of our own era. What would our silence say to our students about their own abilities to form opinions, to interpret the new experiences they were encountering with language and with thought?

Now, of course, we do composition differently. Twentieth-century activist writing does not appear as frequently in our textbooks. In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, many textbook readings are culled from hot-button issues of the last five years; yet these reading offer little-to-no historical context. Economic inequality and structural racism often appear to be the problems of individuals or individual institutions, rather than the long-standing systemic problems that contribute to current societal dilemmas.

However, here in Arizona, we have attempted to remedy this situation. My classes began our semester with reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech. This reading led to a discussion of the history of Arizona’s state government’s refusal to recognize the national Martin Luther King Day holiday in January. In 1990, this refusal led to the NFL’s decision to move the Super Bowl out of Arizona to Pasadena, California. Class discussions ensued about whether or not or how much life in Arizona had changed in the last twenty-one years. Some students discussed their participation in walkouts at their schools to protest the governor’s signing of the 2010 anti-immigration legislation AZ SB 1070. We also grappled with a racist event held on our campus at the beginning of the semester.

Then, along came AZ SB 1062, a bill that purported to support “exercise of religion,” but that many in the state saw as an opening for viral discrimination, especially of LGBT individuals and communities. Arizona was once again the butt of national jokes and the focus of national outrage. Once again, the NFL considered moving the 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona. George Takei promised to lead a boycott of the state. Once again, with Aristotle, we needed to consider how— and why— to write in order to move people to action.

Indeed, the work of persuasion offers compelling challenges for students enrolled in a Basic Writing course. By persuasion, I do not mean rehearsing two sides of an argument, for and against. With legislation such as AZ SB 1062, many writers would find the “for” position too painful to render. Instead, persuasion invites writers to consider approaches for critical presentation of their own interpretations of the issues at hand. What examples would prove appropriate? How could these examples be organized to have the greatest impact? What tone would offer most compelling support for the evidence?

In crafting our writing, such questions never grow old. Rather, we encounter these questions over and over again not only as we gain experiences, but also as we attempt to process and make sense of our experiences, and the connection of our experiences to a larger history. With the turn to popular culture, a focus of many current first-year writing textbooks, that sense of history seems to have become replaced by the transitory and the ephemeral. Yet a generation ago, anthologized essays by Darrow, King, and Wright offered not only exemplary models of persuasive writing, but also a view of early-mid-twentieth-century popular culture. Without that view, we may be stuck with reinventing the wheel. But with that view, we have the opportunity to learn what happens when activists speak back to injustice.

In Arizona, the governor could not ignore that activism; her veto prevented AZ SB 1062 from becoming state law. Yet even as the bill was struck down in Arizona, lawmakers in other states were considering legislation similar to SB 1062. Rather than assuming that Arizona is the exception to the national narrative of continuous progress, perhaps we ought to remember that Arizona could be anywhere. Our students, wherever they reside, can learn to ask questions that will impact the quality of their daily lives, now and in the future. Our job, as their teachers, is to challenge our students’— as well as our selves—to rise to the rhetorical— and the historical —occasion.

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