Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy

Article excerpt

O n October 1, 2015, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, a young man entered a composition classroom and began shooting, killing eight students and their teacher. Nine others were wounded before the shooter, engaged in gunfire with police officers, fatally shot himself. Online conversation was immediate, and within the week, in his short essay "Reasoning at the Point of a Gun," Joseph Harris added his voice-responding in part ' l to the question of what this tragedy means for our pedagogy, given that written reasoning cannot always stand up to gunfire.

This question was quite real for Harris and his grad students, who were discussing a draft written by a first-year student just a few weeks into college, a young man voicing (not yet well) his opposition to gun control. Harris concluded that, despite all, as a teacher of writing he'd (a) "continue, politely, to push that first-year student writer for reasons why, even in the face of campus murders, he believes that gun rights need to be defended" and (b) continue to see sound reasoning in one of his grad students suggestions, which was that the young man be asked "'to take the views of the advocates of gun control as seriously as we're trying to take his'" (n.p.). One likely, and very preliminary, result of such mutual regard is reaffirmation that there is more than one way to describe "gun rights" or "gun control." An important question is what might follow such reaffirmation of what we have already figured. If one thing that follows is renewed appreciation for deep conflicts among values-where value represents the good that drives a person, that which is his reason for acting-what then?

Let us approach this question by posing another, that is, whether Harris and his students were reasoning ethically or morally. Between ethics and morality, what is the difference, if any? If there were much difference at all, what difference would it make to discussions like that Harris had with his grad students, in which the question was how we should respond to them-not to agree or disagree ("it doesn't matter whether we agree with this writer's position or not") but, as Harris says, to help ("we still need to find a way to help him develop the argument he wants to make").

What I see above, in brief, is both: the ethical (what the student believes, values, prefers; how his teachers would prefer to relate to him) and the moral (the impersonal or impartial standpoint Harris would recommend this student take: "to inhabit, at least for a moment, a point of view you disagree with").1 Although the absence of this distinction in Harris's short essay is not remarkable, its absence is more remarkable in composition studies, including refereed articles and entire books devoted to writing and ethics. To redeem this claim-that conflating the ethical and the moral is the norm in our scholarship-let me start with Patricia Bizzell's 2009 article, "Composition Studies Saves the World!" Quoting herself from 1992, Bizzell writes

I must see all my classroom work as deeply imbued with my moral values. I certainly do not go into class and announce that we will now commence indoctrination into the following table of laws. Yet everything I do in the classroom is informed by one or another element in my world view, thus potentially conflicting at every turn with other elements in the students' diverse world views and, because of my institutional position at the head of the class, potentially undercutting their values. Service to my personal morality thus can no longer be seen as an aftereffect or outcome that is neatly separable from the classroom work; in other words, my morality can no longer be regarded as purely private and personal. . . . My values take on an ethical dimension because I am always trying to persuade my students to identify with them, whether I always realize I am doing this or not. . . . To disavow my moral agenda is simply to cover over my inevitable persuasive approaches. …

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