As an instructor of rhetoric and composition courses, my aim is to motivate students to begin a personal exploration toward effective, ethical communication. This can only happen if they feel genuinely inspired by the improvement made within the short period of a term and confident in their ability to learn more—if they feel, in a word, empowered. To these ends, I practice and continually refine pedagogical strategies that reveal how power, knowledge, and discourse are inextricably woven together with the arts of persuasion, more formally known as rhetoric.
I anchor my pedagogy in three interrelated principles, outlined below around Latin maxims. These dictums are not mere flourishes; were you to take my class, you would hear them repeated regularly. Forming the foundation for specific teaching strategies and the constant evaluation of those methods, these principles never allow me to forget that the best teacher is one who adopts the perspective of a perpetual learner. To lead by example, then, I am always seeking to further my own skills in listening, collaboration, and application of knowledge to everyday practices.
Audi Alteram Partem
Like the development of any other skill, critical thinking requires practice, whereby repetitious acts form patterns that become easier to perform, eventually becoming natural, almost instinctual. I employ the strategy of audi alteram partem—translated as “hear the other side”—to cultivate this habit of critical inquiry and analytical thinking. For example, instead of qualifying and modifying a student’s comment in class discussion, I will simply respond with the phrase, often kick-starting a fast and loose version of the dialectical process: one student’s comment (thesis) is followed by a counter-perspective (antithesis), resulting in a new claim (synthesis) for the class to think about. Students soon see the pattern develop and try and beat the game, so to speak, by providing a counter-argument alongside their initial comment (“I know you’re probably gonna say that…”). As a methodology, audi alteram partem encourages the exploration of claims and their structures of reasoning and evidence, all in an organic, conversational manner. The positive effects of this strategy are consistently visible in students’ analytical essays, where evidence shows them grappling with arguments from a variety of perspectives. My larger goal, though, is to foster the natural trajectory of this thought pattern so that students go beyond small claims to examine larger cultural mores. One student email demonstrates this move: “Did you know that in China some pay their doctors only while they stay healthy?! Holy Audi Alteram Partem! Docs only get rich by keeping people from getting sick—we should drop that into health care reform!”
Although it is rewarding to see class conversations quickly gain momentum and capture student interest, my use of audi alteram partem is primarily driven by a belief in the pedagogical principle of critical listening, by which we develop more quickly intellectually and socially by listening to multiple perspectives and logics. In short, I teach rhetoric—the art of persuasion—by teaching the art of listening. Because I am here to learn, too, I practice critical listening by soliciting informal feedback from students through brief emails that simply “touch-base,” scheduling multiple one-on-one conferences, and keeping an “open-door” policy, where I promise to meet with a student at their convenience, in terms of time and location, to the best of my ability. To be an effective instructor, I must listen attentively to students in order to discover their unique learning styles and the particular motivations guiding their education.
To cultivate a thriving atmosphere for critical listening and intellectual exploration, all of my courses place great emphasis on the pedagogical principle of docendo discimus—the idea that “we learn from teaching.” To draw on the diversity of insights and experiences of students, it is my responsibility to create an environment where we can all teach each other. My strategies for doing so have taken several years to develop (and are still evolving), perhaps because they are counter-intuitive at first glance: to animate the self-discovered, self-appropriated learning that can truly influence individual behavior, I emphasize the class as community; to generate a respectful, supportive, and enthusiastic atmosphere, I disperse authority rather than consolidate it. This means, of course, that participants must leave behind the passive role of “student” and adopt a more active orientation that highlights responsibility and accountability. Enacting this principle is more challenging than retaining the traditional roles of student/teacher, but I have found that the results are always worth it.
For example, I recently asked those in my section of ENG 276 (Introduction to Rhetoric) if they would like to include a peer-evaluation component in their first project, and the majority voted in its favor. From there we radically democratized the entire process: in one class session we surveyed sample assignments using a variety of rubrics, exploring the value of different terminologies and evaluative frameworks. Then, with the help of a detailed online survey I designed, they submitted responses on those elements they found most productive, why so, and how they would like to see the peer evaluation integrated. (This particular group chose to have five individual peer reviews be averaged together in determining 20% of their final grade using a holistic, comment-heavy rubric.) Docendo discismus in action, then, looks like this: students actively, voluntarily choose to become teachers, explore options as a community, and democratically determine the language and structure of their own learning process. This is just one example among many energizing, ever-evolving attempts to empower students by encouraging them to perceive themselves as valuable teachers. There are smaller instances, such as calling for volunteers to lead discussion, and more involved cases, like having former students visit a current class to talk about how they succeeded at a particular project—without me in the room to moderate or influence. Though it may seem paradoxical, I have discovered through trial and error that the best way for students to cultivate a sense of ownership in their education is through the radical sharing of knowledge.
Non Scholae, Sed Vitae Discimus
At the core of my pedagogical philosophy is the principle, “we learn not for school, but for life.” To awaken students to the persuasive forces at work on their attitudes and behaviors is to awaken them to their responsibilities as citizens, friends, family members, and principled human beings. The experience of working with several hundred students, however, has significantly altered my approach to communicating the value and importance of a heightened rhetorical consciousness.
Over the past three and a half years, I have moved away from a top-down method of inculcation, where I repeatedly, explicitly declare the importance of rhetorical education, to a bottom-up, micro approach. Using this strategy I focus on seemingly banal, everyday occurrences in a casual tone and exploratory atmosphere. For instance, I will often use the first few minutes of class to nonchalantly describe a random encounter which brought to mind a previous class discussion or reading, encouraging others to help me pull it apart and think through it. It only takes a few class sessions before students seek to supplant my examples with their own, which I encourage. The conversations that follow, which often have that infectious tenor of “class hasn’t really started yet,” are as light-hearted as they are incisive. Only after allowing this to continue for several weeks will I begin to explicitly drive home the importance of sensitizing ourselves and others to surrounding rhetorical forces. Consistently evaluating my teaching methods has led me to this approach, which I find favorable for a variety of reasons: it creates a database of examples I can use to ground theoretical principles using familiar contexts; it tacitly encourages students to look to their own lives for examples of rhetoric; and it carves out a space where students have the opportunity to learn within a context framed by their own concrete experiences.
In outlining the pedagogical principles that guide my teaching style and strategies, I aim to show how these maxims constitute a powerful frame for viewing the world. I teach by these principles because of my ardent conviction that they provide a path for bettering oneself and one’s community.