Kairos 13.2: Praxis - Productive Mess: Course Content

Course Content

21st Century [h]umanism

As we will address in our conclusions, the content of our course isn't arbitrary—while you could conceivably use this format for any topic, we realized that in our case form was actually informing content. Before we can explain this observation, we need to present the topic and content of our course. We hope to stress that our use of technology is very much grounded in our pedagogical goals and our philosophical/rhetorical positions as instructors and theorists. Furthermore, this curriculum aims to demonstrate to students the relevance of classical humanist positions in relation to contemporary social and cultural discussions. It does not, however, attempt to present these texts as either composing a unified perspective on or providing an irrefutable answer to these questions. Rather, they are ways of seeing and accessing complex social issues.

Inspired by Thomas Rickert's graduate seminar on "Institutional Rhetoric," we designed a first-year composition course that introduces students to the history of the question, "What is the purpose of (higher) education?" This curriculum divides into three main sections: developing a rhetorical lens, presenting some of the traditional responses, and rhetorically analyzing the relationship between historical conceptions of and contemporary issues surrounding higher education. Our goal, then, was to inquire into how we can use digital publishing technologies to invest students in an interminable conversation on education by exposing them to and engaging them in an interminable conversation as a part of their education.

As will become obvious, responding to challenging reading constitutes a substantial part of our approach. Let us again stress, as you look over the following readings, that our goal is not to have students "get it right." For most of our students this is the most complicated prose they have ever encountered. We aim to have them make some sense of these readings, to productively engage this difficulty. That is precisely what our forums are for: a space to engage others who are confronting and making sense of complicated material and issues.

Rhetorical Lens

Our first set of readings cover the first four weeks of class. Although each class worked on separate projects, all were concerned with some measure of traditional and visual rhetorical analysis and multimedia production (specific course calendars are available off of our "about" page). Additionally, the classes examined passages from Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year dealing with dorm room doors as an example of social/rhetorical analysis.

Weeks One through Four
Jim Corder, "Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love"
George Lakoff, selections from opening chapter to Don't Think of an Elephant
Kenneth Burke, "Definition of Man" and "Terministic Screens"

All of these readings reject an instrumental understanding of language's role in communication and stress language's metaphorical elements. As we discuss below, each of our explications for the purpose of education are framed in terms of a metaphor or narrative.

Historical Conceptions of Education

The reason we stress metaphor during the courses' initial weeks is because metaphors play a central role in discussions of education. As students read this next set of readings, we often prompted them to focus on the metaphorical elements:

Weeks Five through Eight
Plato, selections from Book VII of The Republic
Cicero and Quintilian, selections from On Oratory and Institutio Oratoria
Kant and Humboldt, "What is Enlightenment" and selections from "University Reform in Germany"
James Bryant Conant, Alfred N. Whitehead, Michael Halloran, and George R. McDowell, a wide selection of texts that discuss both the rise of the land-grant university and the idea of higher education as professionalization

Plato's canonical metaphor compares knowledge to light. Cicero compares the functioning of a stable polis to a healthy body. Kant and Humboldt recast Plato's metaphor (though now it is not an individual soul who basks in the light but rather the discipline of science). Working from these initial metaphors and from the development of the "American Dream" narrative (education as a means for vertical economic and social advancement—the dominant view initially held by most of our students), students examine a number of contemporary social issues surrounding education.

Contemporary Issues in Higher Education

Weeks Nine through Twelve
(Left) Critiques of Education
  • John Taylor Gatto, "Against School"
  • Paulo Freire, selections from Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Neil Postman, selections from Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  • Leon Botstein, "Let Teenagers Try Adulthood"
(Right) Critiques of Education
  • William A. Henry, selections from In Defense of Elitism
  • Allan Bloom, selections from Closing of the American Mind
  • Mark Edmundson, selections from "As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students"
    (although Edmundson isn't politically right, his article fits with the "defend the liberal arts" theme of this week. We teach at a university that has no core liberal arts requirements outside of fyc. The idea that all students might be required to take an art course is impractical and nonsensical to many of our students. I present the previous sentence as objectively as possible.)
Industrialization and Corporatization of the Contemporary University
  • Bill Readings, selections from The University in Ruins
    (focusing on his discussion of "excellence" as a hollow signifier)
  • Stanley Aronowitz, selections from The Knowledge Factory
  • Contemporary University mission statements and webpages (these excellent examples shall remain nameless)
Academic Freedom and Politics in.of the Classroom
  • A wide variety of readings from the AAUP, Students for Academic Freedom, Michael Berube, David Horowitz and Mark Bauerlein in addition to Purdue University official policies

This final week culminates in a public rhetoric project. Students are asked to compose a letter to university officials regarding their current policies on academic freedom. The stance of the letters is entirely up to the student. We mandate only that the letter's position must be founded upon course reading. Thus, students have to adapt what they have read (and posted about) to a new rhetorical situation; they must write a letter to someone who, though a part of this "conversation" (in a Burkian sense), has not been hanging out in their part of the parlor.

Completed letters were exchanged across classes in random groups of ten and evaluated by peer groups. Groups of three to four students rated each letter they received on a scale of 1 to 10. Students received their letter back from the other class with the rating (1-10) and a reflection piece that detailed why the group rated the paper as they did. We felt this rhetorical activity was valuable since each reviewer had to address the original author in a respectful manner, cite evidence for their group's decision, and explain any discrepancies the group had toward the paper. We hoped this peer evaluation process, though anonymous, would build on the ethics and relationships initiated in the forums and bring them back into the physical classroom.

After the letter assignment, students spent much of the final month of class working on a more traditional academic research paper pertaining to an aspect of higher education covered in the course. Topics for these papers were quite wide as students were free to engage and extend any discussion from the previous eight weeks. Some students chose to delve deeper into particular theorists (a treatise on our need to return to platonic education) while others examined particular issues (investigatations into the merging of the corporate and land-grant models, arguments for developing criteria to access contemporary universities), and still others conducted philosophical investigations (thoughtful examinations on the reasons for coming to college, what it means to be educated in a university, and whether liberal education holds the same value today as it did for the Greeks and Romans).