The ideal education for Quintilian started in the cradle and continued through adolescence. Today’s teachers do not have such long-standing influence over their students, but whatever time teachers and students spend together always affords opportunities for furthering the knowledge and practice of both teacher and student. My approach to writing as instilling, practicing, and reworking customs of thought, though inspired by ancient methods, coincides with modern goals of collaborative and student-centered learning.
My classroom activities and writing assignments ask students to engage the complex and recursive work of the writing process. As I introduce methods and readings, students try out different ways to research, invent arguments, draft & revise. Such engagement with complexity requires patience from both students and teacher. For example, in my Rhetoric of Church & State course students analyzed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religion. When students first viewed the speech few understood the problematic rhetorical situation Kennedy faced as a Catholic candidate standing before a largely Protestant electorate, nor were many aware of anti-Catholic prejudice in U.S. history. Working in groups, students reconstructed the historical context Kennedy faced in 1960. They then drew on this collaborative research when writing their individual papers. I closely coordinate individual and collaborative work, both among students and between students and myself in all stages of their work. Though students can at first find the amount of work surprising, they come to appreciate the need for continual engagement. As one student said in a course evaluation, “At first I disliked the class because I hadn’t taken a college-level writing class and thought [the] assignments were graded hard, but once I stepped it up, I enjoyed the class.”
I believe that students must inhabit an antilogical mindset in order to understand responsible argumentation. Antilogy invokes Protagoras’ dictum that on any question there are (at least) two arguments. Given the polarized debate that marks our civic discourse, students struggle with seeing nuance in arguments. First-year students often approach a given issue as though one position dominates over alternatives that have little or no merit. I find that it helps to remind them that people use rhetoric in situations where there is no one obvious answer. Encouraging a rigorous research process helps students begin to see complexity, as they dig into varied and detailed positions published by others. This work helps improve their writing and critical thinking skills, and it encourages space for discussion. As another student remarked in evaluation, I encourage “people [to] feel free to express their opinions without calling people out.” In my feedback and conversations with students, I continually push them to more fairly describe positions opposed to their own, raise better counterarguments to their position, and abandon points they cannot defend for stronger arguments.
More important than individual assignments, texts, or activities, however, is the understanding that only with continued practice will writing improve, and the same can be said about teaching. I present students with perspectives that I hope they find new and challenging but not entirely unconnected from their prior experiences and knowledge, just as I find their responses similar to but never completely in line with my expectations and previous experiences.