Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Art of Being Persuaded: Wayne Booth's Mutual Inquiry and the Trust to Listen

Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Art of Being Persuaded: Wayne Booth's Mutual Inquiry and the Trust to Listen

Article excerpt

This article examines Wayne C. Booth's legacy as a teacher and scholar through the concept of rhetoric as mutual inquiry that he develops between 1974, in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, and The Rhetoric of Rhetoric in 2004.1 As we approach the tenth anniversary of Booth's passing in 2005, his work persists as an insightful guide for connecting the political and pedagogical in pragmatic and productive ways. As we seek to demonstrate, Booth's work lives up to the deep humanitarian ambitions of many composition teachers to promote citizenship while alleviating potential anxieties over politicizing writing classrooms. To be clear, the authors are interested not in teaching any particular political outcome, but rather particular political behaviors. Instead of expecting students to choose among partisan views, we aim to teach them how to engage in transparent, constructive, and nonviolent civil discourse. We further seek teachable moments in which students experience the relevance of civil discourse to their lives and the desire to contribute to it. In short, through Booth's legacy composition teachers can help students decide when and how to change their own minds without telling them what to think.

To illustrate the power of asking students to persuade themselves in composition courses, we begin with the frequently divisive issue of sexual identity. In first-year writing courses on one of our university campuses, the merits of logos seem largely irrelevant to students raised to believe that homosexuality is something regarded as a sin, disease, or crime. For these students, reasonable or factual justifications in defense of homosexuality sound driven by emotions and mere rhetoric. The same rebuke of logos comes from students raised to believe that homosexuality is something regarded as a genetic marker and a political identity. For them, any defense of heteronormativity sounds equally driven by emotions and mere faith. Both groups often perceive disagreements as attacks on the authority figures of their upbringing who instilled these beliefs in them, further escalating their emotional defensiveness. The possibility of civil discourse between these groups, much less any potential for changing minds, is slim.

One instructional response to this predicament is to avoid the topic altogether, but such a choice eliminates the opportunity for cultivating civic literacy. Well-intentioned instructors also often respond by encouraging students to stick to what they know and leave out what they feel, inadvertently shutting down further discussion. Rather than avoiding the topic, the class simply avoids their feelings, limiting their arguments to evidence, and their evidence to incontrovertible facts. Yet, how can students stick to the so-called facts when those facts exist in part because of the authorities and emotions through which they are constituted? Is it a fact, for instance, that God condemns/condones homosexuality, or that nature abhors/accepts homosexuality, and why in the first place is one appealing to God or to nature? As the phrase goes back home, it's hard to talk folks out of something they've never been talked into. Even when instructors widen the terrain for talk, inviting debate over controversial issues, the invitation often includes a disclaimer decoded by students as a call for appealing primarily to logos: people are most often persuaded by objectivity. Not unsound advice, though discussion may crumble under such caveats, since students may stop talking (and thinking) once they realize their beliefs may be quickly dismissed as unconvincingly subjective. Certainly it can seem pointless to listen to classmates' thoughts after realizing the discussion comes down to a deadlock between your facts or mine. Will students even participate in discussions like this? Why should they?

To reinvigorate scenarios like this one, in this article we suggest redirecting students from questions like "How can I change your mind? …

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