Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Expanding the Aims of Public Rhetoric and Writing Pedagogy: Writing Letters to Editors

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Expanding the Aims of Public Rhetoric and Writing Pedagogy: Writing Letters to Editors

Article excerpt

Involving students in "public writing" is fraught with headaches of all sorts.

-Christian R. Weisser, Moving beyond Academic Discourse

This is headachy, heart-pounding work.

-Nancy Welch, Living Room

The letter to the editor opened with the line "Public displays of affection are a regular occurrence on any college campus and Virginia Tech is no exception" (Poole). It proceeded to describe what its writer, Ethan Poole, labeled a "rela- tively accepted" scene on college campuses: "Couples [. . .] walking together, holding hands and even [sharing] a smooch here and there." Quickly, though, Poole problematized the scene, arguing that "when a gay or lesbian couple displays such affection, they only receive hateful stares and ridicule." For sup- port, Poole offered experiential evidence, explaining that "[j]ust the other day as my boyfriend and I were leaving a dining hall, a guy looked at us and said 'faggots' as he passed by." No two people, the letter held, should be ridiculed or harassed for displaying affection toward one another. Moreover, the letter called upon those of us on college campuses to practice acceptance and, by doing so, set an example for the rest of society.

This particular letter to the editor was familiar to me. Its writer, Ethan Poole, was a student in my fall 2010 Introduction to College Composition course, and Ethan's letter was written as a course assignment that was part of a unit in public rhetoric. I had read this letter in its draft form and in its final state. Now I was reading it in the "Opinions" section of our campus newspaper, the Collegiate Times. My iteration of the assignment required students to submit their letters for publication. Accordingly, Ethan had "put in [his] oar" (Burke 110) and entered into a conversation that had been ongoing in the newspaper for well over a month. The conversation was about student conduct and hu- man rights, and it had been initiated by coverage of the news story dubbed the "Rutgers Webcam Spying Case."1 The question posed by the Rutgers case, at least as it appeared in the pages of the Collegiate Times, was fundamentally a question of conduct: How do we, as members of a society, conduct ourselves in relation to one another? A number of Collegiate Times writers argued that the Rutgers case should teach us to conduct ourselves better by exercising more foresight, by practicing more empathy, and by showing more compassion.2 Ethan's letter followed in this vein in that it caught and carried on "the tenor of the argument" (Burke 110) that was threaded through the past issues of the Collegiate Times by calling for increased acceptance.

As I read Ethan's published letter, the question of conduct that Ethan raised became, for me, a question about the way I conducted the public rhetoric unit in my course and, by extension, the conduct of public writing pedagogies in writing courses across the nation. Writing courses, as Elizabeth Ervin notes, maintain a "fraught relationship" with public rhetoric ("Composition" 48). For Ervin, it is the teacher of public rhetoric and writing who must "actively accompany [students] in the transition from virtual-public discourse to real- public discourse, from class participation to civic participation" ("Encouraging" 389). The accompaniment to which Ervin refers is indeed a form of pedagogical conduct, but it is conduct loaded with unanticipated effects-rewards as well as risks. In Ethan's case, the fact that his letter was published in a newspaper that maintains a readership of over twenty-six thousand individuals came with the rewarding possibility that his writing could actually effect some of the change for which he was advocating, perhaps easing what he referred to as the "PDA double standard." Yet, the letter's publication also came with the potential risk that, if Ethan's call for change was ineffective, his writing might inadvertently invite more harassment. Given the rewards and risks inherent to public rhetoric, the question of pedagogical conduct becomes all the more pressing: How should teachers conduct a public rhetoric and writing assign- ment, unit, or course? …

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