Learning to Speak

I have seen a lot of discussion of an anonymous Vox article, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and I’m Scared of My Students,” making the rounds so I went to take a look at the thing itself. I have to admit, I got so angry with the author right from the get-go that I had to stop reading and come back to it later. Reading all the way through, I could see that the author made some good points, but for me they were undermined by the context that Schlosser himself paints for his readers (and, yeah, the calling out a twitter user from behind the veil of anonymity? Not classy.).

This will probably seem like a weird thing for a blog like mine to talk about, right? Spiritual gnosis should not be entirely severed from practical matters of education, though. Without a strong education, the mind isn’t well-prepared to engage in gnostic work. It’s not like the question of education hasn’t come up in magical circles, too.

Let me be very clear: You don’t need an academic education to prepare yourself for gnostic work; there are many forms of intellectual discipline which can serve that purpose. It is, in fact, because I believe there is more to education than academics that I am addressing this piece. However, I want to talk about this situation because it opens the door toward an appreciation of pluralism, which ought to be part of gnosis at some level in this polyglot world.

Okay, so caveat aside, go read the section “What it was like before” in the article. None of this will make sense without that context. When I read that, I could grasp why the author was uncomfortable with the question that had been posed, but I was horrified at his response to it and even more horrified by his supervisor’s casual attitude toward Schlosser’s response to it.

Schlosser asked his students what they thought of a video and if they thought it was convincing. The student’s reply, though troubling, responded directly to that question. He was saying, quite clearly, that he did not find the video convincing and that it was because he had been exposed to a contrary view of the situation.

Instead of engaging with the student on the terms Schlosser himself had established (do you find this convincing? Why or why not?), Schlosser shut the student down and changed the terms of the discussion from one of persuasion to correctness. That’s a rhetorical dirty trick and undermines the learning process.

To have the sorts of discussion Schlosser purports to have asked for, he needed to prepare the class for the possibility that people in the classroom would have very different ideas about subjects they might discuss. He needed to make clear that since this was a classroom focusing on rhetorical technique, that people would need to give up trying to win an argument and instead (1) pay attention to the concerns raised within an argument (i.e, actually listen) and (2) learn how address them persuasively (i.e., respond to what has actually been said).

For that to happen, he needed to model that behavior for his students. How does that look? Well, first, he needs to say, ‘okay, let’s pause here and note that we are moving into rhetorically charged waters, where you and I might disagree. Outside of this classroom, we might disagree quite heatedly. We can’t have a class discussion about who is right, though. Sometimes, we might both be wrong in some very interesting ways. What we need to do here is figure out how we can identify what is going on and keep talking in a way that facilitates communication and persuasion.’

Yes, sometimes communication reaches its limits. It is Schlosser’s job to make that clear and to underline that beyond that point, the rhetorical concerns he is teaching have limits. He should be able to point out these limits within the class as part of the broader learning process and then return to the teaching of rhetoric proper.  His goal, and the goal of the students in the class, should be to make the most of what falls within the domain of rhetoric.

He should have looked at the student, then, and basically unpacked for the class the concern and then check-in with the student whether he, the instructor, has the sense of it. The dialogue should have looked more like this:

“Okay, yes, so you are saying you don’t find the video persuasive, right?”

(student probably nods)

“And that you don’t find it persuasive because it doesn’t address information that you have heard about?”

(student probably nods)

“Great, we can’t have the debate here about the facts of the matter (though perhaps it might be the subject of your midterm paper), but we can talk about the sorts of evidence someone trying to persuade you might use.

I am hearing some terms showing up here that might be too heated for a classroom example, so before we go any further, I need to check in with a quick show of hands. Do people feel like we can have a good discussion about persuasion around this material?

(Discussion ensues. He should touch base with people who are uncomfortable, let them voice their concerns briefly *if they want to.* If it can’t proceed, Schlosser should have stepped back from the discussion and explained why, making clear that his goals are to provide rhetorical training, not agitate grievances. If it seems like the discussion can continue productively, then it should have started something like this:)

Again, let’s assume none of us have all of the facts ready to hand right now, but let’s talk about the sorts facts that might persuade this student here. Then, let’s flip the question and ask what sorts of facts might persuade someone who supports this video to take this student’s position instead. This might get a little tense, but let’s not go after each other as to whether one of us is right or wrong.

Let’s try to figure out what would persuade us what is right or wrong. If we can’t do that, we’ll cut this discussion short and start fresh next class. Feel free to come talk to me during office hours if you need to.”

What especially horrifies me in the article is that Schlosser goes on to wear his pedagogical failure as a badge of honor, of how he suffered because the student he ill-treated (or a student who saw the ill-treatment and was frustrated by it) actually complained about it. He even makes fun of the students poor grammar and grasp of terminology (“communistical [sic]”). The implication here is “how dare this ignorant student complain?”

If your student can’t articulate themselves and can’t engage the institutional support to help them with that, it’s part of the instructor and their department’s work to help clarify that. That his supervisor only commiserated with Schlosser adds their failure to his and it is no wonder that the situation has become more tense. The institution isn’t actually addressing their constituency, their community.

Screw this student as client bullshit, but do we now think that teachers aren’t servants? Schlosser treats his students with great disrespect and he is forcing them to accept his own expertise without providing them the tools to emulate it. I worry, in fact, that he lacks expertise and his reactionary shut-down of his student is a mask to conceal that.

If Schlosser didn’t want to have these sorts of discussions, he shouldn’t have used the framing material he did. He should acknowledge his mistake, not wallow in it. This would have been an ideal point for Schlosser’s supervisor to intervene: “Hey, this complaint may seem silly, but you did choose some highly-charged materials. If you don’t want to have to field these sorts of discussions, you shouldn’t use material like this.” Or, even, “this material is too charged to be useful in our community. Can we talk about what might be more appropriate?”

Schlosser hasn’t taught his student anything, except that if he doesn’t tow the liberal line in class, he’ll be told ‘experts disagree with him.’ When that student tries to persuade someone else what will he be able to do? Simply assert that there are experts that agree with their position. Expertise gets enshrined, but effectively no one really understands what that means.That used to get called out as an ad hominem appeal to authority.

His subsequent complaints fall flat because of this. He’s afraid of his students, they just don’t respect him, but when he and his institution have been battering them with authority and vagary for years, is it any surprise that they are getting sick of it and complaining louder? The answer here isn’t to tell these kids to simmer down, it is to do your job so they can articulate their claims clearly and things don’t have to reach a boiling point. That might not solve the problem, but they might help.

Why isn’t he teaching students about the beauties of rhetoric? Of the hardship of working through a position, of what it takes to form and criticize one, but also about the wonders of doing that together and suddenly finding that sometimes a mutual misunderstanding lies at the root of a debate and, once clarified, makes the debate meaningless? Of the fact that even someone who is quite good at rhetoric will, through following out its discipline rigorously, discover that they were wrong and find sudden clarity?

Especially in a pluralist society, a teacher of rhetoric and critical thinking needs to be less concerned with what their students think and more concerned with the tools they have to think with, that they are learning how to think. From there, they have to trust in the power of genuine dialogue to lead to meaningful changes in attitude. Without that, students are only learning how to rattle brittle sabers.

To be fair to the author, I know many of the reasons why this isn’t happening, many having to do with poor institutional support both in terms of pay for the adjuncts teaching these classes and in terms of mentorship. But that isn’t what he is focusing on. It seems more productive to point out the ideal toward which we ought to strive and demand support in the name of that, than to retreat into a reactive posture like Schlosser. It’s harder, I know, sometimes too hard and failures can be forgiven, but I don’t want us to lose sight of the higher road in all this.

Whew, okay, I’ve ranted a bit here, haven’t I? Well, I guess I don’t do it too often.

Take care, everyone. I’ll be back to talking straight up magic next time.

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3 thoughts on “Learning to Speak

  1. Rhetorical education. Brilliant, and a nice counter argument to the original piece, and a nice explanation /exploration of why rhetoric matters.

    For my part, I think the seven liberal arts of the medieval curriculum are almost an essential component of a magical curriculum. Grammar to understand the foundations of language, logic to understand how to build on them, rhetoric to know what to build on each foundation. In the more advanced quadrivium, number and geometry build first in music and then in time-space relationship. (For my part, I add drawing and painting as the eighth and ninth realms, but that’snot the medievals, so much as me.) I’m on too small a screen to continue talking on this but I’ll try to post further on this in the next few days.

    1. Io

      Oh, and I should be clear that this post owes a good bit to a longer lineage of pedagogical thinking that’s been around for a few decades, the sort of stuff that has its roots in people like Paulo Freire, though has seen a lot of development and divergence since his heyday. I got exposed to the practice more than the writing, though, so I don’t have a good list of folks to give their proper due.

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