I’m starting to think the first-year writing course might be the most important class in the world, or, rather, to the world, at this cultural moment.
It’s been a year of abysmal and broken public discourse. Add a pandemic, social injustice, increasingly shrill and reductive social media discourse, partisanship, the hijacking of minds and attention spans by technology, the endless stream of voices seducing us into lives of self-absorbed consumerism, language decay that leaves students increasingly unable to articulate their views and experiences, and I think “freshman” rhetoric deserves serious consideration for this outrageous award. It seems more urgent than ever to protect and nurture students’ abilities to think, discuss, debate, speak truth, hear truth, and disagree well. I think we are being called by our world, our culture, and our students to reimagine and redesign the nature and experience of first-year writing.
The ability to recognize, analyze, formulate, and articulate a persuasive argument supported by good evidence is the heart of an academic. For millennia rhetoric has been thought vital to democratic politics, civic engagement, and education.
But we need more. We need to help first-year students come to see and experience conversation and argumentation as a calling.
In Ancient Rhetoric for Contemporary Students, Crowley and Hawhee ask readers to consider the following questions: “Where do you see rhetoric being practiced? What makes people change their minds? How, for example, do people stop being racist? How do they start? What counts as persuasion in your communities?” When these types of questions become personal and not merely academic, students start to see that deliberation and persuasion have shaped every decision, course of action, and point of view they have undertaken or adopted.
I wonder how students would live if they believed, really believed, that language could save or destroy the world?
We must help students see that to be effective in the conversations to which we are called, we must, ultimately, become certain kinds of people: humble, charitable, hospitable, patient, reasonable. We must care intensely about our subject and our audience. We must take time to hear both sides of an argument. We must be committed to the twists and turns of conversations. This commitment to our words and the words of others is how a rhetorical calling transforms us. It is how we become rhetorical role-models for our students, which they desperately need.
I tell students we are called to “speak the truth in love.” This is difficult to do. It’s easy to do one or the other. It’s easy to speak only “truth” and be harsh and judgmental to anyone who disagrees with you. And it’s easy to speak only “love” and pretend everything’s okay. But, as the fourth chapter of Ephesians suggests, doing both at the same time, inhabiting the tension that disagreeing well requires, makes us mature and promotes unity within the communities we are called to. Or it can if it is a calling we consistently live out.
Thankfully, all this reimagining was, quite literally, handed to me when I took my current job. My colleague Michael VanDyke designed our required first-year writing course, “Writing in Culture.” When first perusing the syllabus he had written for it, the following course objectives stood out to me:
Clarify personal presuppositions, biases, and attitudes on social and cultural issues through written and verbal responses to readings.
Produce persuasive research-based essays that evince hopeful civic engagement and wisdom-seeking rather than narrow, moralistic judgment.
And these sentences from the “integration of faith and content” section required in our syllabi:
Christians . . . do not have the option of avoiding civic engagement or of engaging the culture with a haughtiness that belies a lack of hospitality and humility. . . Thus, “Writing in Culture” presents writing as not only an essential academic skill, but also as a potential mode of Christian discipleship, whereby students form minds that are capable of more sensitive and informed interaction with the world that Christ has redeemed.
I found this framework rich and inspiring. But the class was hard to teach. It wasn’t a straightforward composition class. After a few semesters, I was struck by the rather obvious thought that we are called to conversations and that calling was the perfect framework for this class. Vocation was the missing piece that could unify the course’s call to self-knowledge, virtue, hopeful civic engagement, and, oh yeah, nuts and bolts writing instruction.
I began to see the class as an invitation to a fundamental human vocation that makes other vocations and vocational discernment possible. There are many voices in culture that are trying to persuade, seduce, manipulate, shame, flatter, and deceive students. These are voices of “anti-vocation” or “fauxcation” against which students need to defend themselves. Rhetoric is intellectual self-defense, I tell students, but now I also see it as vocational self-defense. It helps students recognize the voice of wisdom when she calls out in the streets.
I recently asked Michael about conversation and discourse as a calling. He said: “I think it’s an expression of a commitment to society and to a community and a refusal to let necessary conflicts sabotage the larger, fundamental social bonds. It’s part of our call to be peacemakers.”
I am compelled by this idea of conversation and argumentation as commitment to community and peacemaking. And not just to negotiate disagreements, but to do within a community all the other things language does: praise, lament, grieve, joke, satirize, rebuke, comfort, guide, teach, and bless.
Lots of what I do in class would work in first-year experience group discussions. Short but powerful texts like the “Allegory of the Cave” and “The Danger of a Single Story” help students conceptualize their “biases and presuppositions on social and cultural issues” — that we are shaped by culture to degrees that we often aren’t even aware of.
For historical perspectives on the power of answering the call to truth through argumentation, we watch the first episode of the John Adams series that focuses on the Boston Massacre trial, an event that feels disconcertingly relevant to students. I use other stories of rhetorical calling like Fredrick Douglass’ “Learning to Read,” an excerpt from his autobiography, wherein he discovers The Columbian Orator. “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is another example of answering the call to dialogue rather than monologue and a commitment to justice by way of refuting false claims.
One of the best assignments I’ve discovered is having students keep a kind of rhetorical diary or journal to analyze rhetoric encountered in their everyday lives. This has been really effective in opening their eyes to the rhetoric they encounter every day and making rhetorical analysis a way of life rather than a dull classroom exercise.
Rhetoric, Socrates says in the Phaedrus, is the art of soul leading. It is the power, for good or ill, to touch and shape the inner reality of another and to alter the course of their thinking and actions. Cicero says a great rhetor gathers a scattered humanity. It is hard to think of a higher or more urgent calling.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.