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The ancients' values are rooted so deeply in technical communication and rhetoric that they're often rendered tacit. The distinction between true
and false rhetoric, for instance, is regularly over-simplified as Truth vs. rhetorical
persuasion. But the distinction in the classical sense is more complex. New
Media tools can help slow down the learning process.
These tools can help strike through the tacit to make learning concepts more explicit.
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.
For instance, graduate students often teach the process of writing as
a specific set of stages or steps. Classical rhetors were far more post-process
than most new teachers today. There is no one right way for classical rhetors,
including Plato, yet it's our job as teachers teaching teachers to teach
our students how to teach in "right" ways. And while there are some similarities
between classical and contemporary cultures with socially constructed meaning
making and networked communities that have their own power structures, my
students' lives are very different than those who lived in the city-state
structures of enlightened Ancient Greece and the powerful, yet fleeting,
state of Rome. It is nearly impossible to imagine what it would be like
to practice rhetoric in Ancient Greece or Rome. On occasion, saying the
wrong thing resulted in hands being cut off and tongues being stuck with
golden pins. On other occasions, speaking prowess provided the keys to the
Such rhetorical savviness
is important in departments as well as classrooms.
In The Department
For my students, the stakes and the definitions and applications of core concepts are far different. Invention for the ancients, for instance, is more like selection than coming up with something new. Stasis for us often means the status quo, but for classical rhetors it denoted coming to a point of disagreement where arguments could then be fashioned. My own department--including faculty and graduate students--have yet to find a static place for critical questions over disciplinary and professional autonomy and committee work across the fields. As Sam Dragga, the chair of my department, stated in his CPTSC plenary session this year, "Every [...] program is limited by its academic location," and we should be investigating "vehicles and strategies for building agile, fluid, mobile, wireless academic and administrative relationships" (2006). It is the responsibility of English departments, to quote Greg Ulmer (2003), "to develop rhetorical and composition practices for citizens to move from consumers to produces of image discourse" (p.6). Relationships are places. Every Place, in the classical sense, is an enlightened location where people argue to make new
Ironically, problems that exist in English departments are often due to their diversity and dynamic nature. Like slow-moving tectonic plates, ever-present shifting produces overlap and gap that make it challenging to come to a place of productive stasis. Place today, because of the presense of new media, shifts in many different ways. And commonplaces in classical rhetoric are more like beliefs or ideas assumed to be true that are shared in common.
"Commonplace" translates as individual expertise areas' perspectives to faculty. To students, "commonplace" often means Starbucks, or the local brew pub, or other swanky spots with free wifi.
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In The Classroom
In the chapter on graduate student and teacher preparation in What the Best College Teachers
Do (2004), Ken Bain challenges teachers to "think for a moment about the kinds of questions you ask yourself when you prepare to teach" (p.48). He suggests that what students are to learn, and what learning they're to transfer, should be among the highlights. Goals and objectives and measurable outcomes. Nothing new. But, as Bain suggests, there are also tactical considerations. "How can I best facilitate these discussions and collaborations? What kind of groups will I form or encourage in the class? [...] Am
I prepared to make changes in individual class sessions or in the whole course to connect with my students?" (pp.54-56). These are principles of good teaching, yes, but they're also core principles of classical rhetoric. To understand these principles it is important to deconstruct them.
In my course, I'd need to synchronize metareflection over best practice
strategies with core concepts from classical rhetoric because my students
would be teachers themselves. That would need to be the heart of the
matter, as David Smit puts it in The End of Composition Studies
(2004). My course would need to teach both specific and generalizable
knowledge. As Smit notes, "We get what we teach for. And if we want
to help students to transfer what they have learned, we must teach
them how to do so. That is, we must find ways to help novices see
the similarities between what they already know and what they might
apply from that previously learned knowledge to other writing tasks"
Developing a course in classical rhetoric requires much planning; making explicit current rhetorical principles in both classical and contemporary contexts for functional literacy learning is imperative.
Did I mention this regularly scheduled 18-week course was to be taught
in 8 weeks? And did I mention it was to be taught online with new graduate
students from around the country in a new Ph.D.
online program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric? Graduate
students are often nontraditional students, but these adult
learners were an unusal breed of nontraditional.
Where to begin?