After September 11, teaching freshman composition classes focused on traditional modes of argument seemed incomplete and socially irresponsible. While rhetorical persuasion is a valuable skill deeply embedded in American and academic cultures, it is only one stance, and it can limit the way students see the complexities of the world. Teaching other rhetorical stances, particularly mediation or conflict resolution, in writing classes can complement argumentation while also providing an alternative, more comprehensive way of understanding the world around them.
"I was of three minds, Like a tree In which there are three blackbirds."
--Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
"If you limit your view of a problem to choosing between two sides, you inevitably reject much that is true, and you narrow your field of vision to the limits of those two sides, making it unlikely you'll pull back, widen your field of vision, and discover the paradigm shift that will permit truly new understanding."
--The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen
One morning in September 2001, I walked into my freshman composition class at the University of Wisconsin-Barton County. One hour beforehand, I had watched live footage of an airplane full of people crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center. My life, like everyone's, changed that morning, but at that moment of entering the classroom, my professional life changed as well. Along with questions about the safety of my family came questions about the significance of what I do every day. What was I doing in my classrooms that actually mattered? What answers could I possibly offer to my students, and what questions should I raise? At that moment, I too was quite simply an American, helplessly watching our national idealism and sense of invulnerability being bombed by our own symbols of power and superiority. What possible importance did how to write an essay have on this day?
In the wake of September 11, I wasn't alone in my reflections on what and how I teach. I knew that others were wondering what they teach and why. The more familiar community concerns about a liberal curriculum of controversial books that "have no place" in the classroom, much less on our library shelves, gave way to new concerns about our perhaps more conservative approaches. A writer for our local newspaper noted in her September 26 column that "Educating our children about peace is sorely lacking.... We may be teaching our children in the home that there's another recourse to hitting their siblings, but we aren't following it up" in the classrooms (Nimm 4). She's right. While we widely teach some great thinkers who demonstrate "another recourse"--Gandhi, Thoreau, King--often our war-filled histories and, more disturbingly, the skills we teach for future actions do not. I had not. While I had included these great thinkers in my courses, I had not translated those lessons into how I teach my "skills class," freshman composition. Until September 12.
Half of my teaching load--literature--provides the most eloquent of springboards for discussing war and peace, death and rebirth, fear and hope. But the other half--composition--can at times feel painfully disconnected from our lives and what's going on in the world around us. In fact, the primary type of writing taught in composition across the country sometimes seems antithetical to peaceable communication and probably wouldn't resolve a fight with a sibling or anyone else. We focus on rhetoric, the art of effective persuasion, often called "argument." We teach this kind of writing to show students how to build strong arguments, for example, by balancing logic, emotions, and common values--Aristotle's formula--in a successful attempt to convince someone of their point of view. We also teach rhetoric to arm students with the abilities to see through, protect themselves against, or disprove weak or faulty arguments, such as those found in advertising, politics, peer pressure, everywhere. …