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Stasis, Movement, and "A Place to Stand"

posted: 12.1.09 by archived

In the spirit of recent posts by Barclay Barrios and Traci Gardner that described secret formulae and favorite lessons, I thought I would write about an activity that has become a favorite of mine.

I have used this activity to introduce the idea of stasis.  In argument theory stasis means a “stand,” from the Greek “standing still.”  In rhetoric, stasis calls for the rhetor to consider key questions that might clarify an issue.  In this way, a “stand” also calls for us to decide what might make an audience move in one direction or another.  When we are in a state of stasis, we might be sitting on the fence, we might be “standing still,” but we are also perhaps curious about where we might move next.  When we identify stases we see where and why people take a stand on an issue, why they disagree, and what might make them change their minds. The Sophists taught that identifying stasis was the best way to understand where an argument should begin.

I like to talk about stasis when teaching argument because I think stasis theory sometimes nicely frames the way I feel about an issue, and the way students may feel too: We aren’t sure yet exactly where we weigh in, we don’t have a “side,” but we are interested in knowing why others take a stand on the issue.  Looking for stasis is a way to value the process of questioning, exploring, and researching the aspects of an issue that lead people to argue or act.

Stasis theory and teaching based on it doesn’t devalue having a strong opinion or taking a strong stance.  Instead, this approach looks at why people take such stands, and what questions and arguments lead to changes in position.

Okay, so the above definition may still leave many wondering what exactly stasis is.  Maybe I haven’t defined it very well!  Or maybe it is just a tricky concept to explain.  Because of this, I try to illustrate the concept through active learning.  If you have an open classroom, then you’ll need to move some desks and chairs; I’ve also moved into the hallway to do this activity if I’ve needed more room.

I choose an issue that is contentious—but not totally divisive.  Issues like year-round schooling, or a four-day workweek might be good examples (the death penalty might not be the best issue for this activity).  Then, I ask students to arrange themselves in the space according to their opinions: take a “stand.”  If you are for year-round schooling, stand to the left of the room (or hall); if you are against it, stand to the right.  If you are really against it, move all the way to the farthest right; stand near the middle if you don’t have much of an opinion yet.  Then, each student states why they are standing where they are standing—what aspect of the issue makes them stand where they are?  Other students can then move if this reasoning makes them change their own position. If I say that I am against year-round schooling because I loved all of the freedom and I learned so much from just playing during my summers as a kid, this opinion may sway some classmates to move over in my direction, or it might not.  Another student might say that he or she is against year-round schooling because children forget much of what they have learned from year-to-year.  This may or may not cause others to move.  We can pay attention to small positional differences, too—why are we just slightly to the left or right of one another?

In this way, as a group, we see what the key questions are, and we see how opinions are formed and altered.  The “debate” is embodied through our movements.  We come to see where an argument begins, and what makes people form opinions.  Whether we call this stasis or not, this is an interesting way to reveal the complexity of an issue, and set students up to identify this complexity when they choose their own issues to research and write about.

Later, once students have begun working on their own research or argumentative essays, they can workshop their topics through this “place to stand” activity—the whole class can again occupy a range of positions, and the student can list key questions, considerations, and viewpoints while the class responds by moving and putting the issue into action.

If you want to go further with this activity, you could also use the true classical categories for stasis analysis. Dorinda Fox (in an awesome blog on comedy and rhetoric) also has excellent analyses of Chris Rock’s and George Carlin’s uses of stasis, for further reading.  Helen Foster’s article in Composition Forum also looks at how stasis theory can be used in the contemporary classroom.

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Categories: Argument, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorical Situation
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