Sunday, October 29, 2006

Rhetoric and Civics

I would like to think there is no need for a specific political agenda in any class. There is a difference between an agenda and asking students to think. The problem is that many instructors assume that to engage in "critical thinking" means to develop a particular (left-leaning) mindset. However, I view critical thinking as without a definite conclusion. My "logic" and another's logic might lead different places.

Yet, I also want students to care about issues. I don't subscribe to "everything is political" (a simplification of the word "political" to make it all-inclusive), but I do think that life is choices, making "everything is ethics" more accurate. Students should recognize their daily choices matter.

Choices are influenced by rhetoric. Persuasion from all sides affects our choices. This is what I want students to understand. I cannot tell them which sides are "right" or "wrong" -- the only thing I can suggest is that the people misusing rhetorical devices the most might be the least trustworthy. Unfortunately, I don't know that any political or social organization is "honest" by my standards, making me seem very cynical to students.

It's hard for students to realize that every political ad might be misleading and every "leader" is more interested in obtaining or retaining power than changing things for the better. (Some start with good intentions... but power is what it is.) Learning to think critically might not lead to the positive view of humanity.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Halfway There...

It's officially the halfway point and I have to admit that I'm not sure where the time has gone. One short speech, two long ones, and lots of non-discussion later... I'm not sure what the students are getting out of the class. I haven't a clue if they are learning anything about speaking; I'm certainly not sure if they've learned anything useful. I hope they have. Honestly, I've tried to explain and demonstrate the power of words. But, students range from engaged to barely present intellectually. 

That's pretty strange, when you think about it. I wonder if I've lost their interest at this point. I can't tell if they care at all about the course. Then again, if I wanted a science degree and had to take speech, I wouldn't care about it much either. I'm not sure there is a reason to care. How can I say such a thing? Because the truth is that most people never do speak in a public forum and about the same number will ever think critically about the content of what anyone else says.

I'm cynical, certainly, and maybe I hope to change one or two minds about how we think, but for the most part I'm not sure that's likely. I'm not into theory, certainly not into the classical traditions of rhetoric, and couldn't tell you all the big Greek or Latin words for how to analyze a speech. What matters to me is that if a student wants to learn to speak, I can do my best to help him or her.

My ideas about speaking are nothing more than a hunch. That hunch is no different, I suppose, that what all the famous dead men wrote about speaking. That makes me think they weren't so smart or wise -- their works are simply the ones to survive and the ones we quote.

So Aristotle had some ideas. That's nice. Do they apply to my students? Maybe. Or maybe my hunches are just as valid as anything some thinker wrote in the fourth century BCE. I wish I could care more, but I don't. It isn't like I'm ever going to grasp theories about human "constructions" of knowledge and I don't really mind that my mind is more practical.

Students need the practical more, anyway.

Monday, October 09, 2006

What I Wish

After five weeks, a third of a semester, I have some random observations about my teaching and where my class is at the moment.

When the time comes that I am primarily a teacher and not devoting more than two-thirds of my energy to being a student, I know I want to give more time and attention to responding to student works. The students deserve much better guidance than I have offered this semester. I think my students have always deserved more than I could offer -- a problem every teacher must experience at some point.

During student speeches, I have been listening to the speaker, which means I am not noticing the class. This audience is probably better than most "real" audiences, but certainly not perfect. I should develop a way to both monitor the listeners and evaluate the speaker. As the saying goes, I wish I had eyes in the back of my head, something most parents have I am told.

Other instructors of the same class are doing much more than I am, at least if reports are to be believed. I haven't shown speeches by famous individuals. I fear doing so might scare students and lead them to assume I am grading them against Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan. Not exactly a fair contest between students and experts. I have not presented PowerPoint tips, nor have I discussed every chapter of the text. In fact, I don't like the text that much but realize there are few texts that would ever help a student prepare for professional speaking situations.

I'm going to do what I can tomorrow to organize and prepare for a much better few weeks. I need students to respect me, but I also need them to learn a lot more than they might realize.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Speeches Given

Both class sessions this week were consumed by student speeches. I hate grading students for doing something that is so difficult for most people. I know I hate standing in front of strangers, trying to sound articulate.

I end up grading mainly for research skills and an ability to reflect on personal performance.

Honestly, I don't know what anyone can teach about speaking in 15 weeks. I'm left hoping that practice is enough to help some students relax even a little bit more by the end of the semester. I'm also hoping the "actors" learn to turn down the performances a few notches to speak more conversationally. Other than practicing in a somewhat safe environment, not much else can be done.

It's back to hoping they learn to listen well, if nothing else.