Teacher to Teacher

Andrea LunsfordANDREA A. LUNSFORD is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.

Do your students write poetry in, and out of, class?

posted: 7.24.14 by Andrea Lunsford

As I’ve said before, my sister teaches high school in Florida—history and psychology, with a lot of writing in all her classes (she says she’s “notorious” not just for assigning writing but for teaching it and taking it very, very seriously).  I love hearing about the work she is doing and about her students, and recently she wrote to share a poem one of her seniors had written, not for class but just on her own.  It speaks powerfully, I think, to the experiences of many young people today, so I wanted you to read it too:

I think I’m addicted.

Like a freed prisoner that keeps getting convicted

It’s that feeling you get when the whole world is on your shoulders

And it starts off as kind gestures, then it becomes favors, then it’s my job, it’s all mine

This pressure they hand to me

And I say don’t pick it up….but if I don’t it will fall….

Fine I will pick it up, I will load it, carry it, struggle with it

Why not

While I’m at it, you pile it on, too

I’m addicted

And it is definitely something that is self-inflicted.

It is that decision to make a commitment that you cannot keep

But still you decide to take that leap

But really what do you expect to reap

Because pretty soon all you will have is a heap of responsibilities

And in the middle of the night, when everyone is resting, you can’t fall asleep

I am addicted

It is not something that I would have predicted

Another class, another club, another party, another favor, another paper, another deadline, another contest

And just like that I’m under the gun again.

So at night when I open my eyes after my amen, I wonder if God is tired of me

Because although I know that he gave me the key

I still continue to climb the tree

And like a cat afraid to climb down

I am that frozen little girl who is afraid of a clown

And right now there is so much at stake

And when they ask me how I make it

I shrug, because right now, I am just trying not to break

And as I am drowning in this lake

Someone reaches in a hand for me to take

But I push it away,

I fight it

This is my crucifixion

This is my addiction.

That’s some poem from a young African American woman trying to work through the pressure she feels to perform—in so many ways and so many different arenas.  And she is using writing on her own time and in her own ways to do some of that work and to communicate to others what she is living and feeling.

I’ve been impressed, over the years, with how much poetry writing students are doing, and almost all of it outside of class.  Once again, we can look to what’s going on outside our classrooms to help us think hard about what is and should be going on IN them.  While I think, though, I’m going to read this poem one more time, this time aloud, so I can hear the cadence and rhythms in it.  I’ve asked my sister to thank the student writer for sharing it.

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Bread Loaf Anyone?

posted: 7.17.14 by Andrea Lunsford

In late June, I drove from the Burlington airport down Route 116, eventually turning east on Route 125 to drive up into the Green Mountains to Bread Loaf, a campus of Middlebury College that looks up toward Bread Loaf Mountain.  For many of the last twenty-five summers, I have made this trek, yet every time I make the drive it is entirely new.  This year, the sky was shatteringly, immensely blue, and the dark green trees set against it took my breath away.  The sun scattered sparkles on the river that runs down the mountain and around every turn lay familiar sites:  the tiny Ripton Country Store (once featured in the New York Times); the overflowing flower boxes adorning the bridge over the river; the Robert Frost park (and just a bit off the road, Robert Frost’s old cabin, inhabited this summer by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon); and then the Bread Loaf campus, a group of 19th century buildings painted a distinct yellow or occasional white that dot the landscape, looking like visitors who turned up here long ago and simply decided to stay.  I arrived on a Friday with nine others, and we settled down to get caught up with each other’s lives and to talk over plans for the summer.

By the following Tuesday, 240 students (most of them secondary teachers), thirty-one faculty members and directors, and six staff members surged through the buildings and across the landscape, looking for the first sighting of moose (or bear!) and breathing in the cool, clean air.  Tuesday night’s opening session was a celebration from start to finish, as various faculty members spoke of this special community and the goals it has for transformation of education.  Michael Armstrong, as usual, stole the show, inspiring us with his reading of a story written by a six-year-old.  (If you have not read his Closely Observed Children or Children Writing Stories, check them out immediately).  This summer, Michael’s classes (Describing the Imagination and Borges, Calvino, and Beckett) are among the most sought after.  But there are so many fabulous courses to choose from: Doug Jones’s Black/Performance/Theory; Isobel Armstrong’s Vision and Optical Culture in Romantic Poetry; Robert Stepto’s Autobiography in America; Angela Brazil’s Using Theater in the English Classroom—and a lot more.

This summer I am team-teaching Writing, Technologies, and Digital Cultures with Adam Banks (from the University of Kentucky); we’ve met our fifteen students twice now and already I am impressed with their experience and insights.  They are almost all teachers and hail from all parts of the country, from private boarding schools, from rural and urban schools public schools, from severely challenged schools, from elite schools.  What we all share is our dedication to engaging our students, to teaching them with care, with respect, with love, and to learning with and from one another all summer long.

We kicked off our class by reflecting on our own initiation into digital culture, by describing our students, and by summing up the gap we see between the kinds of writing students are asked to do in school (still largely print based and formulaic) and the kinds of writing they are doing on their own: writing that is participatory and collaborative, that is multivocal and multimodal, that ranges across genres and media to reach audiences with their messages.  Needless to say, I am exhilarated at the prospect of the next six-and-a-half weeks and what I know I am going to learn.  Stay tuned to this blog for some of those lessons.  In the meantime, I’ll be writing and reading and talking and teaching and learning away.

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College Celebration Season

posted: 7.10.14 by Andrea Lunsford

So here I am, supposedly retired. But this past spring, as with all others I can recall, I was busy celebrating students and their achievements.  Kalyn came by with the good news that she got a fellowship to graduate school in history, and we reminisced about her early days in college when she wondered if she belonged or would be able to truly “make it.”  Halle, whose honors thesis I worked on with her, was thrilled to learn that her thesis won a major award in the English Department—AND that her oral presentation of her research for the thesis took first place.  We recalled a seminar of mine she was in, one in which we worked particularly hard on presentations, and she was glad to say that all that work had paid off: where once she was painfully afraid of getting up before a crowd, she now feels confident and knows she can do it.  Thanh brought me an inscribed copy of a graphic novel he had co-authored and we talked about his plans for working with a medical group in Malaysia, and he shared the pride he felt in this accomplishment because in his earlier years at school he had such a very hard time following through on things.  And Andrew dashed in between his Phi Beta Kappa induction and the Provost’s dinner, where he was to be the speaker, to give me his new address.  I met Andrew in his frosh year when he came to the Writing Center looking for advice about his first college writing assignment, and over the years we had many meetings there, including some that focused on what would become his honors thesis.  The unsure first-year student I tutored has become a writer who will have his first publication very soon.

These students are representative of thousands upon thousands for whom college makes a real and lasting difference.  One of the great pleasures of teaching these students is the chance to see them blossom, to grow beyond their self doubts and stumbles and fears into strong, committed communicators.

And that’s late spring term at my university and at colleges across the country, a time I think of as Celebration Season.  At Stanford, one of my favorite celebrations is the annual Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Award (nicknamed the LOPRAs).  This prize goes to one or two students each term, of all those nominated by their instructors as worthy of the award, whose instructors have nominated their presentations as exemplary.  The nominees then make their presentations before a judging panel and first place and honorable mention awardees are chosen.  Then in the spring, in Celebration Season, the winning students present their research to a large group of invitees, including parents and friends.  It’s a gala occasion, with each student being presented a certificate and a book (or two) chosen especially for him or her by the instructors, before we wind up with a reception during which they receive congratulations from all of us. This spring, Heather Glenny won for her presentation on “The Art of Breakfast:  Are Skinnier Spokescharacters Harmful to Society,” which she composed for her second-year writing class, The Rhetoric of Spokespersons.  And Christie Bao Thu Nguyen also won for her “Confronting Rape: A Comparison of Modern Anti-Rape Protests Facilitated Online with Those in the Streets,” for her class Global Protests and Civil Unrest.

I’ve seen all of the LOPRA presentations for the years since the inauguration of this award, and I’m delighted to say that they seem to me to just be getting better and better:  better scripted, better designed (especially in terms of multimedia components), and better delivered every year.  So part of the Celebration Season, for me, is a celebration of the teachers who have worked so brilliantly with their students.  The college years, as I have been insisting, are crucial to the development of communicative abilities, and we would do well to celebrate not only the students for their accomplishments but also the instructors who have helped make those accomplishments possible.

As you can tell, I love this time of year, and I love the fact that I have had an opportunity to be one of those teachers whose students we celebrate.   That may be one of the best retirement rewards ever.

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You Can Do It!

posted: 7.3.14 by Andrea Lunsford

A little over a year ago, I wrote about having the great pleasure of funding a small college scholarship for a student attending Interlachen High School in Florida, where my sister Liz has taught for many years.  It’s called the Liz Middleton “You Can Do It!” Scholarship and is awarded every year to a student who shows good promise of doing college work but who needs support to get there.

Last year, the award went to Skylar Midkiff, who matriculated this last fall and has been on the Dean’s list both terms since beginning her college career.  This year has been even more exciting because there were TWO recipients of the award:  Richard Midler, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall; and Keely Brown, who will go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to a four-year university. Both these students were in Liz’s 10th grade world history class and she has had an opportunity to watch them both develop (and struggle) and be admitted to the National Honor Society, which she sponsors.  Richard wants to major in computer science and minor in theater (hooray!); Keely has so many interests she’s not sure what she will major in (she has been taking an online course in Latin, “just for fun”).

Here’s a picture of Keely and Richard along with their teacher, Liz Middleton.

When I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps about the state of learning in this country, I like to think about these students (and their teacher) and reflect on the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of young people across the country who are as energetic and bright and ambitious as Richard and Keely. My hope is that they are finding support from members of their communities as well.  Sometimes it doesn’t really take a village:  just a dedicated teacher and another teacher ready to come up with the financial support to help make a few dreams come true.

So hooray for these Interlachen High students and for their teachers—and for teachers everywhere who are making good things happen for young people.

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Rhetoric Society of America, 2014

posted: 6.26.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Attending the Rhetoric Society of America meeting in San Antonio (May 22-26) reminded me of why I chose the field of rhetoric and composition some 40+ years ago.  Rhetoric, I soon discovered, is an art, theory, and practice that is infinitely portable, and scholars and teachers can apply it to a wide and diverse range of topics and questions.  Not so much a traditional discipline as a way of being in the world, rhetoric fit beautifully with my eclectic interests.  When it came time to write a dissertation, in fact, I found myself working simultaneously on two big projects:  a study of the writing of college students who were labeled “remedial” and another of 19th century Scottish rhetorician and mental philosopher Alexander Bain, whose influence we still feel today in matters of organization and paragraph structure.

So RSA, with its broad base in rhetorical studies and its catholic approach to research, was (and is!) a natural home for me, along with CCCC.  This year, I came to the RSA meeting a day early to participate in the meeting of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, which regularly convenes the day before RSA officially begins.  In addition to hearing a series of top notch papers—from Barbara Biesecker’s meditation on the very different functions of “until” in two speeches (one by Bush, one by Obama), to Scott Stroud’s witty and utterly clear exploration of Kant’s relation to rhetoric, to Ekaterina Haskins’s gripping analysis of “spatial freedom,” all of which offered new avenues of investigation.

During the lunch break, I ran into Janice Lauer, legendary leader of Purdue’s exemplary Rhetoric and Composition Ph.D. program, convener of the Purdue Seminar for many years, and author of a series of important works on invention. In her typically low-key way, Janice began to reminisce about the “pre-RSA” days, beginning in 1964 when a handful of scholars (including Edward P. J. Corbett from English and George Yoos from Communications) began to envision a new organization.  Janice was there from the beginning (the only woman, of course) and is a treasure trove of institutional memory.  Looking from those early days of meeting in a small hotel room at CCCC to this year’s RSA conference suggests how successful the organization has been:  there were 1300 + participants in San Diego.

Listening to scholars from philosophy (such as Biesecker and Linda Martín Alcoff), communication studies (such as Kirt Wilson, Dana Cloud, and Ned O’Gorman), Rhetoric and Composition (such as Krista Ratcliffe, Jordynn Jack, and Jessica Enoch), East Asian Studies (such as Hangping Xu), and several other disciplines assured me that the interdisciplinary nature of RSA is still intact.  But I can still only dream of a robust institutional structure that could make room for such variety. A few universities have long-standing collaborations between rhet/comp scholars and those in communication studies (Penn State or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance), but most traditional disciplinary boundaries are still firmly in place.  This fact of life was made vivid and visible in the friendly but telling conversation between Roxanne Mountford (from rhetoric and composition) and Bill Keith (from communication studies).  In a lively hour-long discussion, they identified a bit of common ground between the two fields (a focus on audience and purpose) along with very different approaches to pedagogy and to concepts such as invention and process.  These two disciplinary fields were both once part of the MLA, as were linguistics and English Education.  But communications (then speech) left MLA 100 years ago, followed shortly by the English Education folks (who founded NCTE), and linguistics.  Some rhet/comp scholars in English remained in MLA, though the last couple of decades have seen a diminution of those numbers, most likely in favor of belonging to RSA and CCCC.  Thus the once large and inclusive field of “English Studies” is now widely fragmented and dispersed.

In general, I approve of this move though it’s hard for me to see fifty or seventy-five years into the future in terms of rhet/comp scholars.  Will we still be scattered across departments and disciplines?  Will we have coalesced into a new disciplinary home outside both English and Communication Studies, as is happening with the creation of new departments (such as those at Michigan State, Kentucky, and Texas)?  If so, what will be the eventual shape of this new home and its discipline? What do you think?

For now, I can’t see that far into the future. But I am hoping that RSA will still be around and will be able to help answer some of these pressing questions.

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What’s the Future of Punctuation?

posted: 6.19.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Is punctuation disappearing in an age of ever more succinct and rushed communication?  Or is it proliferating, some say at a dazzling pace?  Megan Garber favors the view that we live in a time of “punctuation inflation.”  Citing the famous example of Victor Hugo’s one-character message (“?”) to the publisher of Les Miserables and the publisher’s equally succinct reply (“!”), indicating that sales were going very well indeed, she argues that today, given the infinite space on the Net, Hugo would likely have sent a bevy of question marks (“??????????”).  Garber also points to the blog Excessive Exclamation!!, which documents example after example of the tendency to over-exclaim (“Prime Rib Saturday!!!!”).

But Garber thinks we may have hit a punctuation peak and are now slowly moving in the opposite direction, to minimal use of punctuation or to the use of image-based punctuation (think emoji), a shift noted by Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen, who says “I do think there’s an evolution for young people to use images more and words less.”

Garber also points readers to Emoji Dick, an all-“emojicon” telling of Melville’s classic tale.  Such experiments seem to argue against Garber’s hopeful meditation on minimalism, though I don’t think the emoji telling of stories is really going to catch on—and in any case this work is about images far more than punctuation.

Still, we are clearly living in a time of flux as far as punctuation goes, and that’s exciting to me.  I love teaching Jonathan Safran Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” in which he introduces punctuation marks unique to his family (including a snowflake and a spider web).  Students have a grand time inventing special punctuation marks that seem appropriate to the kind of communication they have with family members or friends, and doing so gets them thinking about those little marks they use in their academic writing, often with very little thought.

To feed my curiosity, I just ordered Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks and look forward to learning more about these fascinating characters.

Any good tips out there for books or articles about punctuation and its future???

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In Praise of Maya Angelou

posted: 6.16.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Maya Angelou’s passing on May 28, 2014 unleashed an international tsunami of praise as people everywhere remembered this remarkable woman and her rich legacy.  President Obama spoke for many when he said, “Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman,” adding, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”

I have a three-year-old friend named Maya—and I wonder how many out there know Mayas who were named with Maya Angelou in mind. I’m thinking thousands and thousands.

Like so many others, I tuned in to see the memorial service that was simulcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network on Saturday, June 7, where Michelle Obama and others spoke of Angelou’s lifetime of accomplishments.  When I heard of her death, I scoured the newspapers, reading tribute after tribute, including the many comments that came in response to the New York Times piece “Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South.”  I was struck by how many people writing in had had some contact with Angelou that had touched them deeply, especially her generosity of spirit and her attentiveness to others.

That reading set me to thinking about two occasions when I encountered Angelou and learned from her.  The first was at an NCTE banquet where she had given a major address.  For some reason I can no longer recall, I got to sit next to Angelou, and I remember sitting down nervously and hoping I wouldn’t make a fool of myself.  Not to worry:  she was immediately kind and engaging, asking me about my teaching and my students. When I told her that I was teaching students that many labeled “remedial” (and that I objected to that label), she nodded her head.  Then she took the evening’s program and wrote on it:  “To Dr. Lunsford’s students—Work hard. Write your hearts out.  Remember I believe in you.”  And signed it.

I kept that program and shared that message and that signature with my classes for years to come.  Hearing those words inspired me to keep on believing in my students and in myself as well, a great gift that has kept on giving over the decades of my career.

On another occasion—probably twenty years ago now—I was over in Oakland, just walking down a shop-lined street.  When I looked up, I saw Maya Angelou, arms linked with another woman’s, coming out of a drug store.  I fairly gaped in recognition as she graciously greeted me.  Just then, however, a car full of young white men drove along, slowing down when they saw Angelou standing there.  One of them rolled down the back window and, heaving his upper body out of the window, shouted out “I love you, Maya!!”  Without missing a beat, Angelou blew a kiss and shouted back, “And I love you too, baby.”

What a woman.  A beautiful, brilliant, proud, and PHENOMENAL woman.  May she rest in peace and may her spirit continue to inspire, especially teachers and their students.

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It’s, Like, a Big Question about “Like”

posted: 6.11.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I wonder how many teachers of writing have been tracking student use of “like” as a kind of punctuation mark.  I certainly have been—and I counted 48 uses of the word in ONE 15-minute oral presentation just a few years ago.  In this student’s case, “like” seemed to be a verbal tic, akin to “um” or “ok” or “you know.” I remember working with this student and asking her to tape record herself in casual conversation and in other presentations to see if she could analyze how and when she was using “like.”  She even took to wearing an elastic band around her wrist and snapping it every time she said “like.”  By the end of the year, she had pretty much broken this habit.

But “like” isn’t always so egregious or so distracting as this verbal tic was.  It can sometimes mark a statement as important, saying in essence, “listen up”:  “He’s, like, always mixed up.”  In a Times opinion piece, Professor John McWhorter takes up for at least some uses of “like,” noting that

We associate [like] with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.  “Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point.  To say, “This is, like, the only way to make it work,” is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in the garb of  hypothetical-ness. . . . What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before.

Of course, many will disagree with McWhorter—as did Val Swisher in a blog posting entitled “It’s Like Totally. . .  huh? How the New York Times Got It Wrong.”  In her view, what I have always called “filler” words (“like” or “ok” or “you know”) are distractions—the very opposite of the politeness and consideration McWhorter wants to ascribe to “like.” As Swisher says,

I find it quite surprising that The Times would print this type of nonsense.  Our language does not advance because people toss in words that break up their thoughts and our listening. . . .  I do understand that public speaking is something that can be foreboding and that people are riddled with anxiety at the mere thought of speaking to a group.  And, for those people, saying “like” or “ya know” is not done on purpose.  Those slips are just nerves speaking.  But to say that nonsense syllables spoken in the middle of actual information is a cause for rejoicing is, like, ya know, wrong.

My own sense is that the use of “like” peaked several years ago and is now on the wane, at least in northern California.  I still hear it, but not to the fetishized degree I did a few years ago.  At my school, this shift may be due to the emphasis we are putting on oral/multimedia presentations:  students know that they need to learn to stand and deliver, and to do so in the most professional ways possible.  They increasingly do not want to show up on Facebook or You Tube “sounding like a broken record” as one student put it to me.

Any thoughts out there about the “like” question?

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Summer is here!

posted: 6.2.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Multimodal Mondays is taking a summer vacation! A big, big THANK YOU to all the guest bloggers whose great ideas have appeared here throughout the school year.

Posts will resume in September. If you’re interested in creating a guest post for Multimodal Mondays this fall, contact Leah.Rang@macmillan.com this summer. (Andrea’s regular Teacher to Teacher blog will still appear here every Thursday.)

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Mere Rhetoric Podcasts from UT Austin!

posted: 5.29.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I don’t know how I have missed the fact that undergraduates at the University of Texas, Austin have been recording podcasts about rhetoric since January of this year, but am I ever glad I stumbled on them.  As of April 10, the students have prepared fourteen of these:  What is Rhetoric; Isocrates; The Speech Act Debate; Kenneth Burke; the Phaedrus; Expressivism; Progymnasmata; Erasmus; Genre Theory; Augustine; Errors and Expectations; Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory; Sor Juana; and de Oratore.  I haven’t listened to all of them yet, but those I have heard are crisp and tight, engaging and often witty. They run from about 7 to 14 minutes each, and they are packed with information.

The first one on What is Rhetoric provides an overview of definitions from early times to today, asking listeners to come up with alternative definitions or to debate those offered in the podcast.  The most recent one, on Cicero’s de Oratore, begins “Crisis looms in ancient Rome.  The uneasy triumvirate between Caesar, Pompeii, and Crassus rests on thin bonds that seem inevitable to break. . . . Everything seems primed for disaster. . . .  This, of course, is the best time to write a treatise on rhetoric.”   The podcast begins by setting Cicero’s text in the context of its own time, helping listeners enter the dialogue with needed background knowledge.  The ensuing conversation is embodied in the voices of the podcasters: I was captivated throughout by the energy of the speakers and by the pacing, which kept me scurrying to keep up.

I also appreciated the fact that these podcasts treat subjects in writing studies as well as the history of rhetoric (“expressivism,” for example, or Errors and Expectations).  I’m now all set to listen to the other dozen of these podcasts and to visit the site regularly.  These entries are precisely the kind of thing students can do so well now, bringing their own voices as well as their intellects to bear on issues concerning writing and rhetoric.  I do wish, however, that the sponsors of this series would consider changing its name:  “mere rhetoric” may be catchy since it’s a phrase we hear so often.  But it takes going to the site and listening to the opening of the first podcast to realize that the series is challenging the notion of “mere rhetoric” rather than endorsing it.  In fact, I half expected to click on the URL and hear someone railing against “mere rhetoric” as the scourge of the political scene.  So I was very relieved to find that my expectations were NOT met.

Mere rhetoric?  Not in my book.  Rather, in my classes we define rhetoric as the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication.  I think it’s clear to most teachers of writing that we need this art, theory, and practice more than ever before—and I’m very glad to be able to share these podcasts as one way of making that case.

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