Monday, January 31, 2011

Anti-Social Media, Parenting, and Teaching about Modern Rhetoric

Last week, I had a massive argument with my almost-four-year-old daughter about (wait for it) whether or not a piece of bread had butter on it. It did, but because she hadn't seen her father actually spreading the butter on that particular piece of bread, she refused to believe me. I call it an argument, but it devolved into a stressful version on Monty Python's The Argument Sketch (note how the next sketch featured is "Hitting on the Head Lessons"; it was that, too). The argument devolved into foot stomping, yelling, door slamming, tears, and a lonely little piece of buttered bread waiting on a stair to be eaten. In my role as mother, I wanted my daughter to calm down, see reason, and eat some food (one of the reasons she was being irrational to begin with). In her role as head-strong toddler, she wanted to be right, even if the bread clearly was covered in butter.

I used this example in my class to show how having the best interests of your reader or listener can really change the tone and content of an argument. We have been discussing the differences between Sophists and Philosophers, then moving on to Gertrude Buck and her essay, "The Present Status of Rhetorical Theory." (On an aside, why isn't there a wikipedia page for Buck and her writings? Lack of female contributors, indeed. People, get on this!). She talks about how the Sophists were anti-social while the Platonists were social. The reason? Sophists only had their best interests in mind while arguing, while Platonists were arguing for the benefit of the listener. I asked my students, although we talk about "audience", do we really write for the benefit of that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary audience, or do we really write for our own benefit?

In school, typically, we write for our own benefit: for the benefit of grades. We're not writing to inform or enlighten our professor or teacher, we're writing to get an A. Imagine if your students actually wrote for your benefit, rather than their own? My students couldn't imagine, but they saw the difference. Imagine if we assigned papers or presented an assignment in a way that had students consider a benefit other than their own? Isn't there the potential to read papers that truly offer some insight in perhaps an engaging way? Tenured Radical makes a similar argument about how simply using the word "prompt" causes students to write in a way that truly benefits no one, other than being awarded a good grade.

When you write a paper for publication, are you writing it for the benefit of the reader or the benefit of your tenure case?

I tell my students that this line of thinking isn't just limited to the papers they write for class; what about the discourse we see, hear, and read regarding politics and other "hot button" issues of the day? How many times to they hear arguments that aren't about them, the listener, but have everything to do with benefiting the speaker? How much of the vitriol that goes on in the comments sections of newspapers and popular blogs have nothing to do with "enlightening" the author or other readers, and everything to do with either establishing the superiority of the writer or ensuring their privileged position? Is the openness of the Internet really an "anti-social" form of rhetoric? 

I think my students are really thinking more carefully about their education, their ways of communicating, and the rhetoric, be it visual, aural, or written, that they consume every day. As for me, I wonder if I genuinely had my daughter's best interests at heart as I continued to argue with her over that stupid piece of butter bread; her logic (I didn't see Daddy put butter on it, thus there must not be butter on the bread) was sound, if simplistic. Was it so important that I win this argument? Was it for her benefit that I tried to show her that she was, in fact, wrong, or my own, in order to maintain my dominant position in our dynamic? I'm not sure anymore. But I do know that I want to engage in more meaningful, beneficial, and productive forms of rhetoric with my kids and my students. 

Here's to really being social. 


  1. Admittedly, I'd never heard of Gertrude Buck, bu two observations (which will clue you into what a bad student I would now be):

    1) Re: argument, an improvisor I interviewed once claimed that comedy could never come from two disagreeing about the facts -- it had to come from a disagreement on how they viewed a situation. That's sort of what's happening in the Argument sketch, but your daughter's reaction (which sounds pretty funny to me, not being there) kind of pushes the boundaries of that theory.

    2) I think sophists get the short end of the stick; their immorality was in taking money for instruction and supposedly not caring about the result, but, well, I can't really throw stones at this point. I've come to believe that rhetoric is the same as knowing how to pick flattering colors and clothes: you need to understand the tools of persuasion/attraction, whether you intend to use them for your own interests or you intend not to be swayed by them. Also, Socrates is a big jerk.

    And, one exclamation: go Michigan, it grows good people!

  2. Good point. One might accuse me of writing a post like this for entirely selfish reasons (students, please start writing for my benefit, rather than your own, so that I may enjoy more compelling essays). And for me, I don't necessarily deride the sophists; what I want the students to do is to think about why they are in university and how the approach learning and writing. If they come to the conclusion that it is indeed better (more profitable) to be a sophist, than at least they aren't pretending to be something they're not.

    The argument, in hindsight, was hysterical. Tonight's drama was because there wasn't any cow on her plate (only chicken). It's funny after our blood sugar has returned to normal and we've all calmed down. In the moment, though...

  3. Great post - coming from science and having no clue who the Sophists or Platonists were...gah! Science has failed to give me culture...I'm intrigued. I often struggle with identifying my audience as do my students. Must put more thought into this...and learn me some history...

  4. Cheers to total social awareness!
    Your daughter,students and readers are fortunate to learn from you. At the end of the day, one will know what kind of writer they are.

  5. First off, the illustration of fighting about butter on bread with your daughter is adorable. =)

    Secondly, I like the ideas you have here. I try to give assignments that ask the students to consider people other than themselves or myself as audiences, but maybe benefits for individuals other than themselves is a better way to frame it.


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