Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom
by Erin Kunz
When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics.
In “The Other ‘F’ Word: The Feminist in the Classroom,” Dale Bauer discusses how teaching feminist politics in the classroom could help students identify with a feminist agenda. Sixteen years after this article was published, Bauer revisits this issue and writes about how her utopian project of sharing feminist ideologies was a failure. In “Another F Word: Failure in the Classroom,” Bauer discusses her previous failures in trying to teach feminism to her students: “At the time, I suggested that we offer ourselves as feminist models with whom students could identify—or simply resist, an attitude I believed we could work through, like some therapeutic model of psychoanalysis. I assumed then that if we created the right feminist conditions in the classroom—offering a persuasive feminist rhetoric about social change, and most importantly creating a classroom where students could ask and answer their own questions about why feminism was necessary—we could encourage and develop feminist students.” (157)
Possible reasons for her pedagogical failure, according to Bauer, include students’ fear of community and engagement as well as new technologies which keep them linked to what is happening outside the classroom and prevent interaction among the students in the classroom (160-161). These later reflections on why her experiment failed do not concentrate on the actual problem of self-consciously pushing a certain political ideology (regardless of how sympathetic the general academic community is to that ideology). In this paper, I reposition the issue of how to successfully teach feminist models. I argue that the difference between failure and success has to do with the presentation of the material, political versus rhetorical. I use my own classroom experience and juxtapose it against Bauer’s original position, showing how teaching with a rhetorical empathy model is more useful and ethical than teaching overt politics.
An example of emphasizing the rhetorical can be seen in “Making and Taking Apart “Culture” in the (Writing) Classroom,” in which Kathleen Dixon argues that a common pedagogical problem in the liberal discourse of academe is the faulty perception that diversity will ultimately create “liberty, equality, and fraternity” (100). The article is a small-scale “ethnography” that records one experience of attempting to teach gender in the classroom. Many students were initially resistant to even discuss the crossover between race, gender, and music, but by turning the conversation to a different focus, Dixon was able to help her students access the topic. Discussing feminism and race in pop culture, she was able to piece apart “the many reasons why race, especially, was so hard to talk about: categorizing people somehow doesn’t seem right” (103). She goes on to explain how she discussed with her students some of the differences between white men, white women, black men, and black women; each person comes to a particular situation with their own agenda, so we must understand culture as pieces rather than an overarching hegemony. By having this discussion, students were able to see why certain female black rappers had different lyrics compared with other rappers, and how particular audiences at concerts can change a performative experience.
By focusing on the individual and their goal, Dixon makes an important distinction that differs from the failure Bauer speaks of—she broke down popular culture into something rhetorical. Each rapper has their own agenda, their own purpose, goals, and exegesis, and he or she has to respond in the best way possible when approaching each particular audience. When a teacher takes away the solely political element—in this example, Queen Latifah reversing the patriarchal norm and claiming that women should come before men—and discusses the rhetorical element of a situation, there is an empathetic quality to the discussion that helps students access the material.
In English Studies, we often ask our students to feel empathetic to certain characters by imagining themselves within another person’s experience. By emphasizing this process, we hope that our students will be able to engage with other groups of people and become empathetic to struggles they have not had to experience. The drawback to this approach is that it is still overtly political; we ask our students to be empathetic to certain ideological situations they may be resistant to. Although I agree that this should and needs to happen in some capacity, by using it as the only approach as Bauer did, we often find our efforts futile. By asking the student to instead empathize with the author and her position as a writer (how can a woman reach a male audience? how can a black author garner respect for her work?), we depoliticize the situation, because this intellectual exercise does not depend on whether or not the students agree with the author but only that they understand the position of the writer and how rhetorically effective (or ineffective) he or she is. By contextualizing feminist politics into the rhetorical situation, students are better able to approach the topic and engage with those issues so important to gender.
In my own experience, I have encountered the same failure Bauer discusses, and I have achieved the same success that Dixon discusses. When this essay was written, I taught at an upper-Midwestern university in which many of the students come from rural, conservative backgrounds. My experience of failure and success happened as quickly as two back-to-back semesters at this same school, with the same course, with the same syllabus and class materials, and with generally the same population. Therefore, the independent variables are limited, which Bauer claims is an important factor to consider given the sixteen years between her two papers. The following anecdote will discuss this experience and show how rhetorical feminism can help students access texts and theories they would normally be resistant to.
In the University of North Dakota college composition program, three authors are usually taught in the semester and the students write five papers. In my course, I taught Paulo Freire, Mary Louise Pratt, and Susan Griffin, all authors who focus on education and are therefore sequenced together in Ways of Reading. Freire’s essay is a short introduction to liberation pedagogy and juxtaposes two different education styles: banking versus problem-posing. Pratt focuses on positive conflict in education and promotes subversive teaching strategies, such as parody and unseemly comparisons. Griffin’s writing is itself an example of unseemly comparisons, as she juxtaposes the biography of Henrich Himmler with metaphor and her own autobiography, an essay that suggests alternative methods to understanding history.
Even though the essays are sequenced together in the anthology and the writing assignments build off of the essays as a unit, the students did not see all three essays as equal contributors to their learning. In my first semester of teaching, I was not prepared for the reaction my students would have against both Pratt and Griffin, and many of them used pejorative word choices to describe their writing styles—random, scatterbrained, unfocused. Freire’s essay, “The Banking Concept of Education,” is written in a didactic, linear style, and although it was difficult for the students to grasp some of the abstract ideas and get a handle on the vocabulary, they were generally able to see the essay’s worth and agree that Freire was successful as a writer. Students had a much harder time with Pratt and her use of anecdotes, and by the time we started with Griffin, they seemed frustrated with the text selections and with the course in its entirety.
Susan Griffin’s essay, “Our Secret,” is certainly a complicated text, as it traces the childhood of Heinrich Himmler in pieces, with metaphors and anecdotes from Griffin’s own life scattered throughout. The writing is not linear, and a reader gets no sense that Griffin is being didactic in her writing approach. I personally admire “Our Secret,” and I see Griffin as a thorough researcher and talented writer. Her postmodern, feminist approach to knowledge is one of the most powerful and moving academic projects I have ever engaged with.
My students did not agree. They were extremely frustrated with “Our Secret,” discussing the text as sloppy, emotive, random, and unprofessional. They saw no beauty in her design, and I was at somewhat of a loss for how to teach the essay. I was looking for my students to engage with the text, and by this I mean that I wanted them to of course understand the text on a superficial, plot level (which with Griffin is still quite hard), but also to see some of the connections she’s making, why she’s making them, what those connections tell us about Griffin as a writer, and then finally to decide if she meets her rhetorical objective. But of course to decide if she meets her rhetorical objective, we must be open to what the essay is actually saying.
I found the students’ pejorative comments about Griffin’s writing style to be a serious undervaluing of the text “Our Secret,” and I was at first baffled that my students would—even if they thought the text was confusing—be willing to entirely dismiss it. It became clearer when I read their papers that their issue with Griffin went beyond reading preferences. A few of the male students in the fall semester wrote quite opinionated theses, such as “Griffin is sexist and a feminist, and that is why she writes against men in a scattered way” (this is a generalization, but accurate in tone). The reaction from the women in the class was also incredibly interesting. They were usually kinder, but thought Griffin could “learn a thing or two from Freire’s straightforward writing.”
This experience shows a gender bias which was (maybe) not completely directed at the sex of the authors, but it was directed at the issue of stereotypical masculine writing styles versus stereotypical feminine writing styles. I do not necessarily agree with the essentialist view that male writing is deductive and linear and female writing is inductive and circular, but my students were reacting in a way that proved that these gendered academic binaries are still deep-seated stereotypes for many of our students. The majority expressed their preference for the “male linear writing style” over the “female circular writing style.” And although there are many reasons students may prefer a linear story compared to one that is more aesthetically complicated, such as difficulty level, comprehension, and even laziness, it must be noted that their responses to this difficulty were couched in gendered language, and their explanations for why they had certain preferences were discussed from their gendered perspectives.
Their gendered preferences seem even more apparent when considering the content of the two articles. Freire discusses pedagogy, which is a topic that can seem somewhat dry to freshmen students. Griffin, on the other hand, writes about gender, violence, sex, homosexuality, feminism, misogyny and sadism; yet, the students still preferred Freire. In class discussions they admitted this, and the overwhelming reason why was because Freire was straightforward and “got to the point,” while Griffin was random and “had no point.”
It would be easy for an instructor—especially a female instructor such as myself—to react negatively to this situation and be tempted to perform the didactic lecture on sexism and politics that Bauer originally suggests, which is what I unfortunately did during my first semester teaching. This attempt was not successful, and I did not change many students’ minds. In my second semester teaching Griffin, I decided to react differently to this situation and view it as a rhetorical situation rather than a political situation. Despite Bauer’s claims that technology and a lack of academic motivation are to blame for her failure to teach feminism, I found that it was the sense of indoctrination my students felt when I did not teach rhetorically. The differences in method yielded much different results.
Simply stated, a ‘”rhetorical situation occurs when an author, an audience, and a context come together and a persuasive message is communicated through some medium” (“Elements of Analysis”). A rhetorical analysis is a useful exercise for an introductory composition course because it helps students to understand that writing, and media in general, do not arise on their own but instead come from authors, producers, and creators who are making choices, organizing information in particular ways for particular reasons. When students conduct rhetorical analyses, they are able to become more critical readers and more thoughtful writers. In my second semester of teaching Griffin’s essay, I decided to extend this teaching to myself and help my students understand that even as students and teachers, we were making rhetorical decisions.
My new lesson plan for Griffin contained more opportunities for contextualization, and I decided that we would read Ways of Reading’s introduction to “Our Secret” before I assigned the actual essay for their homework. The introduction situates Griffin as a feminist scholar, and this context was important for how I planned to approach the subject. On the day we were to read the introduction together, before we had even read a line of text, I went to the chalkboard and wrote “feminist” as large as I literally could across the board. My students began looking at each other in confusion, whispering, and eventually giggling. I then asked my students what came to mind when they saw this word. The exercise immediately defused negativity toward the word “feminist,” and the students began to laugh, as they could clearly see the satire of me making “feminist” a “big, scary word.” The conversation following this exercising was surprising and excellent; my Midwestern students discussed their genuine reaction to the word, collaboratively deciding (without my help) that a feminist was not someone who hated men, but someone who was interested in women and women’s positions in society, and such a person could be either a man or a woman. Furthermore, they began hinting at the idea that women as intellectuals probably approach problems differently than men.
Because we started in such a way where we in one part “aired our dirty laundry” but in another part, and more importantly so, rhetorically discussed reactions to feminism and feminist work, we were able to have mature conversations about the content of the essay. My students were able to see my rhetorical position as a female teacher trying to teach a feminist text, and they were ousted from the beginning from their rhetorical positions of being resistant students. They could see my agenda and then eventually Griffin’s, and the fact that we approached the agenda in a light-hearted way helped to build our community and talk about gendered issues in a safe, non-threatening environment. By examining what baggage both sides brought to the conversation, we were able to examine the atmosphere, or rhetorical situation, in conservative North Dakota about broaching the subject of gender and gender construction in a general education classroom. I showed empathy by understanding their positions as students in a university that often teaches with a liberal focus, and they showed empathy for my position, what they saw as a liberal, feminist teacher struggling to teach a feminist text in North Dakota.
My students were also eventually able to show empathy for Susan Griffin’s position as a female author embarking on a project about masculinities and war, and they were able to then examine some of her rhetorical choices, just as they examined my rhetorical choice of writing “feminist” across the board before we began the discussion.
When we began the essay “Our Secret,” the students were open to discussing issues that are often embarrassing for freshmen from North Dakota, like gender issues and homosexuality. Wonderfully, we were also able to discuss how Griffin was trying to access knowledge through her unique writing style. They stopped seeing her writing structure as “random” and instead saw it as a conscious writing choice that lets the reader come to different conclusions about the text—a strategy that was seen as sincere in my second semester, instead of just “random”. I had many students who wrote about how she saw a problem with (in their words) the “manifesto, in your face” writing style like Freire’s, and she was trying to show all sides of a situation and let readers come to their own conclusions by writing the way she does. I also had many students write about how Griffin seemed more trustworthy because she was willing to use literary elements like metaphor and not come out with a direct thesis, building her topic as she went. By teaching rhetorically, the students saw Griffin’s ethos grow stronger, which is in itself a political gain. They began to see her as an academic with a particular motivation instead of a personal threat to them.
The point here is not to make my students “like” Susan Griffin as a writer; the point is to allow them to see her writing as rhetorically motivated, and once they were able to be empathetic to the fact that she was a human being consciously making choices in order to reach a certain audience, they were much better able to access the essay and not fall back into easy gendered stereotypes to create their conclusions. By discussing what comes to mind when one thinks about a “feminist,” and then what the effect is of reading “feminist writing,” we were able to discuss political and gendered motivations from a rhetorical standpoint, not a didactic political standpoint.
Dale Bauer’s failure in teaching feminism should not be blamed on newfangled technology or an exaggerated change in our students’ approach to school; the issue is in presentation and the difference between political versus rhetorical models. Feminist pedagogy does not have to be taught in a way that is overtly political, and I argue that it should not be taught in this way. It is in general far more beneficial for students to learn about rhetorical situations, because they can still be introduced to ideologies different from their own. They are also engaging in the act of metacognition, thinking about their rhetorical positions as writers and even their rhetorical positions as readers analyzing the rhetorical positions of other writers. By removing the fear of indoctrination and discussing content from the perspective of students’, teachers’, and writers’ rhetorical positions, students become more comfortable with the material and their engagement with it. This approach will then have the benefit of accomplishing both of Bauer’s goals in her separate essays—we can teach feminism while also creating learning communities.
Bauer, Dale. “Another F Word: Failure in the Classroom.” Pedagogy 7.2 (2007): 157-70. Print.
—. “The Other ‘F’ Word: The Feminist in the Classroom.” College English. 52.4 (1990): 385- 96. Print.
Dixon, Kathleen. “Making and Taking Apart “Culture” in the (Writing) Classroom.” Left Margins: Cultural Studies and Composition Pedagogy. Eds. Karen Fitts and Alan W. France. Albany: State University of New York P, 1995. 99-114. Print.
“Elements of Analysis.” The Purdue OWL Family of Sites. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue U, 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.
Griffin, Susan. “Our Secret.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 299-346. Print.
Freire, Paulo. “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 243-254. Print.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 499-511. Print.