When We Teach Rhetoric, We Teach Values: A Writing Curriculum to Teach Civil Discourse

“Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.”              


                                                                                              Jim Corder – “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”

Background and Rationale for the Curriculum

Whenever I discuss rhetoric with fellow teachers, I notice many of them hold a definition of rhetoric that emphasizes the instrumental, that values a rhetor’s ability to persuade over their ability to illuminate, clarify, or listen.  I know this to be true because when I ask them what they think of the rhetoric on cable news, many of them reply that it is incredibly successful – “just look at how many people are persuaded by their methods.”

When we teach our students rhetoric in the English or Humanities classroom, we ought to serve them better.  We ought to teach them to value complexity and subtlety over the brute force of a well delivered message.  We ought to teach them to value the process of communicating and reasoning over the certainty of their convictions.  We ought to teach them to value and love the other first, and to use language in a way that makes space for those they disagree with. 

The world of psychology has much to offer the world of writing instruction.  Jim Corder and other rhetoricians have relied on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers to teach students to find common ground within polarizing issues for over forty years now.  Today, teachers of writing, communication, and rhetoric can look to current work in moral psychology to derive many of the same insights.  In his Ted Talk “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a moral matrix to describe how we fail to make space for the other in our reasoning and communication:

“Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out.  And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.”                       

In basic terms, this metaphor of the matrix implies that while we believe our judgments and perceptions always match reality, they often do not.   This insight offers a way to develop a new vision of rhetoric in our own writing classes.  If we can develop writing assignments to help students realize that they live in a matrix of their own beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions, and if we can teach them to develop moral humility in their communication, the way is cleared for them to engage in discourse and reasoning that is both more civil and critical.  Here is one curriculum designed to achieve these goals.

Opening Essay – In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

In the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, students answer essay prompts that put them in conversation with Haidt’s “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.”  The questions in the assignment ask them to apply frameworks or lenses from moral psychology to their own experiences.  This not only models how much of academic and critical thinking works (applying theoretical frameworks to real life issues) but encourages them to investigate some of their own unexamined values and assumptions about themselves and others.  The concept of the Moral Matrix also provides a theme for the course, and sets up the four part I-Controversy research paper in which students will be asked to step outside of their own moral matrices.

Research Paper Sequence: The I-Controversy Paper (4 Parts)

The I-Controversy Paper assignment inherits its title from the I-Search paper that is often taught in writing classes.  The ‘I’ borrowed from the I-Search connotes that this is a process assignment that embeds student interest and reflection.   In order to encourage students to confront and open to spaces of difference and disagreement, the I-Controversy asks students to choose a specific yes/no controversial statement or question.  This question then serves as the foundation for all 4 parts or essays.    

Part 1 of the I-Controversy Paper

In part 1 of the paper, students write about the experiences and people that have shaped their perspective on their controversy.  Many students are first inclined to write their opinions on the issue, and I encourage them in the writing process to focus more on what shaped those opinions rather than on the opinions themselves.  Like the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, this encourages students to look at the sources of their beliefs rather than their beliefs themselves, opening the way for reflection and critical thinking.

Parts 2 and 3 of the I-Controversy

In parts 2 and 3, students literally step outside of the moral matrix, writing in the third person and reporting the best arguments from first the pro and then the con side of their controversy.  By writing in a voice that represents the pro and con side, students can’t help but make space for voices on both sides of the controversy. 

Part 4 of the I-Controversy

In part 4, students get to choose from a series of reflection questions designed to encourage them to demonstrate the civil and critical thinking the developed on their journey outside the matrix.  After voicing the arguments for each side, almost all students report having a better understanding of the other side, and some students even find that they have changed their mind on their issue.  Still others focus on articulating something deeper about the nature of their controversy, exploring the differences in the values of both sides or analyzing what makes the issue complex enough to warrant it being a controversy in the first place. 

Final Thought

All of these moves offer students space to consider the other and thoughtfully represent their issue.  This is what rhetoric ought to be and can be if we see it as an expression of human value rather than an instrument or means to an end.

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