"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Everything You Should have Learned about Politics (and Trump) in High School

February 15th, 2016 by

Today marks the start of the fifth week of the college semester where I teach, and predicable things are happening as we enter this time. I should, of course, be happy about this since on the national front, things seem explosive, strange, and even threatening. It is this confluence of these two things—the predictable and the threatening—that I would like to address here.

This is what is predictable. I get it every semester that I assign the literacy narrative to my students who want to be teachers and, consequently, teachers of writing. (Yes, it really does seem to come to them as an after-thought that teaching writing might be different from teaching math, though they aren’t sure how.) After our opening discussions, which have all been interesting, I have reached the stage where I am beginning to read in their drafts that recount how they developed in literacy about how they loved writing early on, especially when they got to write on whatever topic they wanted, and there were no “rules.”

Rules they associate with school-based writing, writing assigned by a teacher and therefore boring. Rules they associate with dead-letter laws, life-killing regulations to do research and not simply write about anything.

Creativity, they assert, is what they want. When I ask for a definition of their key term, what I get is a typical deconstructive move: Creativity is the opposite of rules. Creativity means no rules.

Well, that is news to most of the creative artists, scientists, politicians, and business people in the world. But there you have it. Most of my students begin by asserting that they can do their best writing without having to worry about the constraints of audience, which for them means a teacher.

I do begin to think at this point, in the fifth week of the term, that my students were poorly served in high school. They were taught “rules”–the five paragraph theme, the Jane Schafer method–and not Rhetoric. They weren’t taught to think like rhetoricians.

Neither, it seems, have our current batch of political candidates.

The Lost Art of Rhetoric
When I say this, I am thinking of the results of the latest GOP debate, which I read about in the paper this morning. I didn’t watch it, but I can picture it. The paper made it out to be an insult fest and characterized it as the new low in these already low brow pie-throwing contests.

The one similarity between this surprising, sad “discourse” and my staid, predictable classroom world seems to be this. There are no rules. Led by Donald Trump, these candidates seem to be calling each other liars and casting insults about for the duration instead of engaging their audience in some measured discussion of their policies. What used to be disappointing affairs where each candidate would take the moderators’ questions as cues to read their talking points has now descended into a chaotic period in which nothing worth saying can be said.

The next low might actually come when they start slugging each other.

Writerly, Readerly Prose
These are not products of any rhetorical tradition I can recognize, though I get the sense that their audience respects this.

In my classroom, I acknowledge my students’ right to explore in their own language the ideas that matter to them. But I draw a line on the board, and on one side I write “Writerly Prose.” This is the writing we do to discover, the writing we do to talk to ourselves. It is not intended for an audience. On the other side, I write the words “Readerly Prose.” This, I say, is writing meant to be read.

I do this to differentiate from their old high school world of “rules.” This has to do with audience I say. Take that discovery writing, that mumbo-jumbo on the page, and begin to think about your audience’s needs.

What to Call it in the Civic Sphere
I’d like to say the same thing for the current political gaming we are hearing. The trouble is that “writerly prose” seems far too princely a term for it. It’s not writerly. It’s ego. It isn’t ready for an audience, but it is meant for one. It’s the boast of the big man. There is no discovery going on, only the discovery that insults, racial and sexual slurs, lies, and big talk seem to be winning over the audience.

The remedy? Send them all back to high school, but instead of the five paragraph theme, have them read Aristotle on the character of the speaker.

All of them. Send all of them back. Even their audience that thinks they are saying something relevant.

This remedy, as far as I can see, is something that I resist because I really don’t like to come up with voter registration laws that sound like the old South. But maybe we’ve reached the point of no return.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time we required that some voters show they have read and understand the difference between running a reality show and running the country.

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Comment by Caroline on February 15, 2016 at 6:28 pm

That literacy narrative is still one of my favorite things I have written. (For the record, I didn’t define creativity as “the opposite of rules”! 🙂

“All of them. Send them all back. Even their audience that thinks they are saying something relevant.” If only…

Comment by Tom on February 16, 2016 at 5:15 pm

I know that you didn’t define creativity as no rules, and I’m glad you liked that assignment, Caroline. Don’t you wish we could just ban certain people from running for office?

Comment by Caroline on February 16, 2016 at 5:37 pm

I think perhaps the main problem is the audience (“that thinks they are saying something”). I am not sure what, if anything, can be done about that…

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