Tag Archives: Pedagogy

Outcomes or Objectives, or whatever you call them this week

When I hope I’m in a stable teaching situation where I can actually make things fairly clear to my students and expect support from my administration, I really do like to work things out fairly completely for them.  Here’s an example from a past phase of my Rhet/Comp instruction.  Specifically, this was developed out of my Belhaven College experience (especially during the time I was trying to revise the Rhet/Comp approach to integrate remediation before the first Comp course, so as to avoid the race-to-the-bottom problem in Comp, and interviewing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s College of the Liberal Arts and Houston’s College of Biblical Studies at the same time) and with an eye to establishing a uniform structure across my Belhaven and CBS teaching, with an eye to some Houston Baptist U work.

I’m increasingly uncertain those detailed rubrics work very well for grading, but they’re pretty decent for explaining the norms:















Preventing Plagiarism by Teaching Rhetoric Properly

Preventing Plagiarism [PDF] is a talk I first gave at Belhaven College in a Faculty Meeting in 2010.  This is actually my preferred version (I had to substantially shorten & visually simplify the final because of time/context limitations), the “director’s cut,” so to speak.  This is not just about plagiarism:  the principles here are the core of my work in Rhet/Comp, the principles around which I have intentionally organized my teaching practices.






























The Other One

In my Introduction to Literature course, I wrote this alternate version of the Day One Essay:

For a literature class like ours, I would use this quotation a bit differently than for other classes I teach.  There are a number of ways I can approach a passage like this, but I want to evaluate the way Chesterton uses paradox to provoke and smooth controversy, and to offer some observations about what seem to me to be some faults in the style of the passage.

I hope it seems obvious that this passage seeks to provoke controversy by appearing to contradict common sense.  In fact, the larger text this is drawn from is full of examples of just this, and just a little up the page from this very passage he directly mentions the antithesis of this assertion.  We generally think of people with sharp, strong beliefs as more likely to get into disputes, and we associate that strong emotion readily with “bigotry” and violence.

Chesterton provokes us, then, by challenging our belief.  He claims “indifference” causes bigotry and even “monstrous persecutions,” and thus tempts us to react before we have reflected on the meaning of his words.  In a very small way, he tempts us to act like “bigots” about the definition of “bigotry,” at least by that common definition.  Not being willing to be thought hasty, though, we may try to understand his intended meaning–and then he has us.

For Chesterton has in view the ordinary state of interest and concern–of what has been called “studious seriousness”–that one shows in matters that are important.  When the “appalling frenzy” comes, it sweeps away those who react to the horrors and celebrities and outrages of the moment; it is only those who have spent time and effort to form initial judgments with reasons they can explain, who have actively committed themselves to principles they cannot easily back down from, who are emboldened and empowered to speak reasonably and responsibly to the needs of the moment.  Chesterton’s paradox, then, is that he suggests that those most committed to study and argue in their leisure are least likely to be swept up in thoughtless currents of bigotry and violence.

At the same time as Chesterton provokes with his paradox, he also soothes.  This happens in two ways.  One we might describe by noticing that Chesterton’s writing is, in vulgar phrase, “too danged cheerful.”  That is, Chesterton puts so many bits of clever language, paradox, and wordplay before us that we are likely to feel at every turn that we would like to throw a beer in his face, or buy the next round, or both.  He provokes, but he is having so much fun doing it that we are likely to be drawn in, at least a little bit.  Notice, in this passage, that he lets us–his readers–off the hook; we are not likely to think of ourselves as “indifferent,” or as not being “peopl who cared,” until we reason more deeply about our habits–the sting of that reasoning comes only after we have been soothed by the distance he allows us to gain from the provocation.

This basic pattern–a provoking paradox, a soothing abstraction, a subtextual jab to our consciences–is one Chesterton uses over and over.  I will not dispute its effectiveness.  I do think there is a risk, however, that impels me to urge writers to use this sparingly.  Over time, the need to provoke tempts each writer into more and more contrived paradoxes, often obfuscating the relatively simple.  At the same time, the abstractions required to provide emotional distance and explain the provocation become more complex and opaque.  The reader is likely to find them more elaborate than the situation can actually bear.  As a result, both the traction of the paradox in the mundane world and the sharpness of the jab to the reader’s conscience are weakened, turned into mush.

I think I may clearly exemplify this problem by simply changing one word in one sentence:  “Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have [only] opinions.”  This sentence is now logically contradictory to the original.  I actually agree with the main point of the original phrase, too.  Using ordinary definitions of “opinion” and “argument” that I establish in my Rhetoric classes, however, I could totally rewrite the whole passage to make a slightly different point.  In other words, the style of the paradox is not very tightly related to the substance of the point.

Thus at once I notice the power of Chesterton’s style, and in passing my agreement with his point, while yet hoping that a habit of merely clever paradoxy will not slip into your writing style or mine.  Such a style might, after all, prove to be another expression of “indifference”–of what might be called “sloth,” in fact.  Rejecting such “indifference” should, it is to be hoped, enable us to reason and respond well–not least by weighing carefully the fitness of our words.

My Day One Essay

For the first day of class this term, I did not speak to my students.  I simply presented them with a prompt and had them use the time to write a response to this quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Of course, to be fair, and to make it easier to remain silent, I did the writing myself.  (in the first class, and in another class that was a different course; I wrote poems during the other sections, rather than rewrite the same piece multiple times.)  What follows is my response to my prompt, as transcribed from the legal pad I wrote it down on:

There are several reasons I offered you this quotation to begin our class.  I can discuss some of these with you later.  For just two examples, this passage sets up a conversation I like to have in Rhetoric classes about the meaning of words such as “fact” and “assertion” and “argument” by using “opinion” in a controversial manner.  For another, really technical-sounding, reason, I like the way Chesterton’s point here coincides with a Gadamerian defence of prejudice.  Most simply, though, this bumptious-sounding passage brings us rapidly to the heart of the subject we are here to study–the relationship between reasoning in public and being well-informed on matters that should concern us all.

By “indifference” Chesterton does not mean having no feelings–no one could be “terrible” in “frenzy” without emotions.  What he means is a bit more subtle than that.  Consider two possible responses to seeing an upsetting event on television.  One person talks to all his friends about how gross or scary it was, or maybe joins a bunch of friends to stand outside where there’s a protest.  There are some emotions on display–but has he really done anything that commits him to further action and makes him fit to act and advocate wisely and well?  I suggest he has not.

By comparison, consider his friend who has a habit of being well informed and well prepared.  She wants to know whether the reactions she hears are realistic and proportionate.  She is not content to be merely “open-minded” or “skeptical,” so she actively studies available learning from a variety of disciplines and traditions.  When she ends up talking to others about this problem, she already has some idea what she thinks, and has reasons for her view–she knows what her “initial judgment,” or “prejudice,” is.  As a result, her friends have to offer her better reasons than the ones she’s already found, if they want to move her to a new, possibly better, position.

This movement, from preparation to “exigence” (the moment when others might disagree with you) to a more decided and defined understanding, is what we call “reasoning.”  We do not merely shout what we think at any moment at each other, but prepare our thoughts so that we can give reasons to our friends–and even our rivals, opponents, or enemies.

When we prepare by studying and thinking carefully, and reason with others, most people will feel an obligation to give their own reasons, or at least to criticize our reasons.  Responding to reasons with reasons, and weighing those reasons for fitness and relative importance, is what “reasonable” people do, and “responsible” people expect this to be usual in their conversations.  People who abuse this process with lies or manipulations are justly called “unreasonable” and “irresponsible,” and we can safely refuse to consider their views until we hear reasonable and responsible expressions of similar views.

When people are “indifferent” to matters that they ought to study and fail to prepare for reasonable and responsible discourse, they are overwhelmingly likely to be swept along with crowds of others who do not care enough to learn, but who can be counted on to do what this celebrity or that party leader tells them, especially if they can be made frightened or angry enough.  “Indifferent” people can be easily manipulated by a charming or famous or surprising person, especially if that person is well-liked by the news and entertainment media.  From street protests to the DMV, from tech support to a mass rally for a radical politician, most of the bad results you see are easily attributable to “indifference” in this sense.  It is through our failure to take responsibility to learn and speak and act reasonably that we become slaves.

In the end, it is slavery that Chesterton warns us against–slavery to those in power, maybe, but definitely slavery to our own ignorance and passions, as those are echoed and amplified by millions of others, and manipulated by those who are eager to sell us things.  For in believing that the world exists to keep our desires met, that being consumers can make us happy and hard thinking will make us sad, we become enslaved–and we are likely also to become bigots.