Teaching Rhetoric

Part of my job is to teach my students how to understand Rhetoric.  It’s a great topic and one that I find interesting on multiple levels.  Before I can do that, I have to get my students to understand what an argument is. Typically, this is the hardest nut to crack because they don’t fully grasp the concept of persuasion. They understand that people tell them things, but they don’t understand the difference between an opinion, a claim and a fact.  They think all claims are facts and that all opinions are baseless and pointless.  Usually, we start slow. I’ll write on the board a simple phrase:

“I Think President Obama is a socialist.”  

The students automatically get that this is an opinion and that it has no weight. It’s an opinion, they argue. And, sense everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a right to their opinion, there isn’t any reason to debate it.  We discuss this for a few moments, then I erase two words.

“President Obama is a socialist.”

Half the students understand what I did, but a few of them are jarred.  I make it worse because I ask them if it’s true or false.  I make them raise their hands. Some say true. Some say false. Some don’t raise their hands.  I do this until, finally, they seem frustrated.  They honestly don’t know if it’s true or not. That’s when I reveal to them that it’s a claim, a statement that needs to be proven. I also try to explain to them that claims sound like facts by design, and facts are only strongly and reliably proven claims.  My example of a fact is that the “Sun is hot.”  It is a fact, because we have millions of years of data to support the claim. It’s been supported so exhaustively that there is no real need to debate it.

Another piece of the Rhetorical puzzle is logical thinking. This takes more time, usually the entire semester. Logical thinking skills are hard to teach and hard to learn. This is because there are too many aspects of our society that need to be thought about and too many times where being illogical is encouraged.  Yesterday, we had a great discussion about Teen Pregnancy in my EN 101 entry level Composition class.  I asked them if Teen Pregnancy is an issue. They said yes.  I asked who’s fault it was when a teen girl got pregnant.  All of them agreed it was the teen girls fault. Half of them agreed that it was the teen girl’s parents fault. A few thought that it was society’s fault. One person, one guy said, bravely, that it was the boy’s fault.

“Do you guys think it’s the boy’s fault?”

Silence.  Then one of the student’s said that it was “partially” the boy’s fault, that it was a shared responsibility between the boy and the girl.

“So,” I said, very carefully. “Everyone agrees that it is 100% the girl’s fault if she gets pregnant.  But the boy only gets half of the responsibility? That makes sense to you?”

“Well,” one of them said, “The girl said yes.”

“But didn’t the boy ask?” I offered.

My job isn’t to make students think that my ideology is correct. They barely even have a world-view. It would be impossible to give them my world-view and expect them to fully understand it.  My job is to get them to write in such a way that shows their thoughts and feelings to be important. This takes time and patiences. It also takes some creativity on my part and some long nights on their part, writing papers. It’s fun, though.  I wouldn’t want to do anything else.