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I collected syllabi from courses I took as a graduate student, from other scholars
whose work I respected, and from every teacher who has taught a classical
rhetoric course before and has left information online.
I found that most teachers approached such a course through the lens of
teaching the dialectical and rhetorical divisions while presenting pertinent
rhetors chronologically. Seemed logical. I even went back to the courses
I took as an undergraduate. The first course I ever signed up for in college,
Philosophy 101, used a book by Thomas Nagel called What Does it All Mean?
(1987). I re-read it. Nagel says, "The main concern of philosophy is
to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day
without thinking about them" (p.5). I believe in that. And a more recent
book I was reading at the time by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy
in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought
(1999), goes a step further:
Perhaps the oldest of philosophical problems is the problem of what is real and how we can know it, if we can know it. Greek philosophy began with that question. The issue for the Greeks was whether, as Greek religion assumed, our fates were ruled by the whims of the gods or, as Greek philosophy asserted, our capacity for reason gave us a sufficient understanding of the world to survive and flourish. (p.94)
This teleological view of the world was emebedded in the cultural realisms of
the ancients, as was a reliance on Pythagorian mathematics to understand the
harmonious nature of reality.
If many of the core classical concepts were taken for granted by my students,
I began to think, I could use that. How did my students know what they knew?
What "proof" or theoretically all-encompassing theory of strings did they
have? (I was also studying David Auburn's play, Proof
(2001), at the time, which our instructors were preparing to teach in
our first-year composition program.) The problem of knowing was the question
the Greeks were asking, too. But epistemology itself is difficult to untangle,
especially in an online class. I knew, of course, that just as Protagoras
said "the man was the measure of all things," and how that influenced Plato
to think about how human beliefs are inventions and therefore moral values
themselves were relative, my course needed to emphasize my students and their
worlds and their interests as the measures of all things. Lakoff and Johnson
wrote of Plato's concept of Not-Being, for instance (which I knew I would
have difficulty explaining online), as: "degrees of knowledge arise by combining
the Degrees of Being metaphor with Knowing Is Seeing: Your degree of knowledge
depends on the degree of Being of the object of knowledge. This establishes
a correlation between degrees of Being and degrees of knowledge" (p.367).
Knowledge is meaningless unless personally applied.
I collected every Plato in 90 Minutes (1996)-like book I could,
read those, and quickly found they said little that applied to what I wanted
to say. The Introducing (2002) graphic novels on Plato and Aristotle,
however, are quite good, and I decided to include them in the required reading
list. I looked through the collections of classical and Roman rhetoric texts
Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. It was my former home away from home
in grad school, and there's something central and home(r) to classical rhetoric
that takes me back to my roots as a teacher and scholar.
That was my second realization:
I could use the process of making our tacit assumptions about core classical concepts more readily apparent. The process is an example of knowledge-making that is essentially what classical rhetors were doing.
But second, I could highlight that classical rhetoric is central
to who we are as teachers and citizens today. It is our home. It is our
base. I re-read the central texts like those by Kinneavy, Enos, Moss, Rorty,
Farrell, Berlin, Vitanza, Murphy and Katula, Foss, Kennedy, and Crowley.
I re-read the primary texts typically and atypically covered. Like a chess
game, I planned sequences and thought through an opening game, strategerized
a middle game, and considered end game scenarios. I'd open with a gambit
and see what my students picked up on. I thumbed through more recent
issues of Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Rhetoric Review, Written Communication, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. I looked online at the web resources of classical scholars and new media theorists like Lee Honeycutt at Iowa State University and Collin Brooke at Syracuse University. I started to collect what I would later call "Use(r)ful Perusings" on my course site; these are the best of the best links out there for background information like timelines, core concepts, key principles, bibliographies, and critical essays. I later asked my students to contribute to the course in the same way.
[C]lassical rhetoric is central to who we are as teachers and citizens today.
Collecting taught me that I would need to invent my course in the classical
sense. I had to be selective and choose decisively based on my audience.
Better still, I needed to create a system whereby my students could be selective.
I wasn't exactly envisioning a "choose-your-own-adventure" format as there
are core concepts to cover, but the course needed individualized post-process-like
entry points for students to slip into the knowledge and try it on for size.
I needed a multisequential apparatus or structure. I needed something that
would challenge my highly-achieving students. I needed something that would
push the delivery envelope and would be interactive, as Martin Jacobi and
Carol Rutz and Todd Taylor suggest in Kathleen Blake Yancey's book Delivery College
Composition: The Fifth Canon (2006), because situation and context undergirds
classical thinking. I needed something that would provide core concepts
in ways that could embrace assessment authentically so that students would
apply their learning personally, as Carl Whithaus emphasizes in Teaching
and Evaluating Writing in the Age of Computers and High-Stakes Testing
(2005). The artifacts they produced should inform their own "teachering."
In the Preface to Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, Sharon
Crowley and Debra Hawhee (2004) provided an excellent hueristic around which
I organized my class. They structured their book around the following three
first, that nobody thinks or writes without reference to the culture in which he or she lives; second, that human beings disagree with one another often and for good reasons; and third, that people compose because they want to affect the course of events. (pp.xiii-xiv)
My students would need to consider issues that they wanted to write or speak about
more so than worrying too much about thesis-driven genres or annotated bibliographies,
unless those were the utilities that best suited their needs. Multimodal assignments
often lend themselves toward multisequential argumentative structures. We
needed ways to make meaning in the
class that would enable us to see that "rhetorical practice [and] ethical
obligations are always communal" (Crowley & Hawhee, 2004, p.xiv). We needed
to recognize that our views are not neutral, and that there are no "platonic"
I didn't have the experience and time and perhaps even the intellectual
dexterity—and perhaps still don't—to teach the course in the way that makes
the most sense to me: backwards. If "Where do our ideas come from?" is the
operating question, then it seemed logical to me to begin with the end in
mind. This is how Poe would teach the course. What do we know now? Where
did that information come from? Begin with the end in mind. Start with Augustine's
On Christian Doctrine or Castelvetro's The Poetics of Aristotle.
They both included the ideal as well as the systematic, or the dialectic
and the rhetorical, in their writings. Trackback the threads. It makes more
sense to me to move in that direction rather than chronologically, but in
a fast-paced online course, starting where most people start—the Greek city-state
structure and oligarchy and the emergence of lawyers and teachers as rhetors—seemed
easier. I chose the chronological route, but I used new media production
tools in ways that classical rhetors would have if the Academy had been
retrofitted with iMovie, MovieMaker, PowerPoint, Word, Acrobat, Camtasia,
a Logitech ClickSmart 510, three monitors on a personal computer with mucho
RAM, high speed Internet, HTML, and a streaming server. The medium and
the message is the message. In many ways, the shared space between my
desktop and my students' desktops was our Agora. I would often put a classical
text in the left screen, criticism about it in the right screen, and my
students' contexts and understanding of it (their blogs) or our MOO conversation
or transcript in my middle monitor.
We'd use the MOO for synchronous chat, but our commonplace would become the application of the ancients' ideas that we'd all create together. I had exceptional students.