I really enjoyed teaching on Thursday.
I spent most of both of my public speaking classes moderating conversations about free speech, Don Imus, and ethics. I’m trying to get the students used to the idea of actually talking to each other instead of directing their comments (usually phrased as questions, a la Taylor Mali’s pet peeve) to me. I want them to test their edges, to venture into territory that they’ve perhaps never navigated before, and to challenge one another’s conceptions of each other and the material. I want them to be engaged, to think, to talk, and to wonder.
I think I made some pretty good headway toward those goals on Thursday. In my first class, I have two students of color: Ebonics Boy, whom I’ve mentioned before, and a beautiful young black woman we’ll call Imelda (when asked what’s important to her, her answer was an emphatic, “SHOES!”). I started the class by talking about their homework, which was a response to the Imus situation and why they think they should care about it.
Imelda was the first person to speak up. Her contention was that, if the people to whom Imus’s comments were directed weren’t insulted by them, then he’s really not guilty of unethical speech. As a black woman, she felt that she had a particular insight to this situation – she wasn’t insulted, she could care less what this ignorant white man has to say about things he knows nothing about – and wanted to know what the big deal was.
I thought that it was interesting that she should mention this because MY first exposure to all of this Imus stuff was through NPR – I happened to tune in during an interview with the women of the Rutgers women’s basketball team and distinctly remembering one woman say that, while others on her team were hurt and angry, Imus’s remarks meant nothing to her; he didn’t know her, he didn’t know what she loved or what scared her or what she was capable of. He could say anything he wanted, was the gist of her answer to the interviewer’s comment, nothing he said would change who she was. My question to Imelda was; is it only the people at whom a comment is aimed who get to decide what is and is not offensive?
We also got into the conversation about whether or not certain words can be said only by certain people. Ebonics-Boy had a lot to say about this: it is his contention that white people have no right – ever – to say nigger. Ever. In any context. It’s okay for black people to use that word, though, and it’s okay for him, as a Polynesian, to use it because, as he so enthusiastically reminded everyone, he’s not white. This argument was contested by a couple of students who believe (rightly, I think, but I didn’t say so) that it is completely unreasonable to put those kinds of limits on words and that, if a word can be used by one, it can be used by all. Sadly, these arguments came to no avail. E-Boy hasn’t figured out how to have intelligent, reasoned conversations yet – he is still very much an all-or-nothing kind of person. This is is going to be a recurring issue with this student and me, I can just tell.
One of the things I love about these conversations is that there are no right answers. I admit to the kids that I’m not even sure how *I* feel about these questions – sometimes I that that words are just words, and the only power they have is the power we give them, but other times I think that words are the embodiment of the energy we radiate – that words are powerful all on their own. My answer to the question I asked Imelda was no – I, as a very white woman, was offended by Imus’s remarks. I have been offended by things that people have said to – or about – complete strangers. It’s an issue I still think about – and one that they should, too.
When we moved away from our conversation about language and sensitivity and ethical speech, we moved on to JFK’s inaugural address.
One of the things I really love about teaching this class is that I get to introduce my students to great works of rhetoric that they would likely not otherwise experience. Without a single exception, for example, none of the students in any the classes I’ve taught thus far has known anything about MLK’s most famous speech beyond the “I have a dream” catchphrase. Seriously – they’ve never heard – or read – the whole thing. The same is true of a lot of “famous speeches:” the Gettysburg Address, Reagan’s comments at the Brandenburg Gate, Albert Speer’s closing comments to the Nuremberg Tribunal – the list goes on. I was excited to start this term’s listening and reading experience with our thirty-fifth president’s inaugural speech.
It’s a beautiful piece of rhetoric. Even though the students don’t always have the historical knowledge to put the speech in its true context (I have to do a lot of background for them to explain the arms race and the cold war – most of them don’t catch the allusion to the Declaration of Independence and none of them knows that nukes were on everyone’s mind), they are still able to appreciate, to greater or lesser degrees, the structure of the speech. They are able to pick out some of the bigger metaphors – the bit about those seeking power by riding the back of the tiger seems to be their favorite – and can point out most of the examples of antithesis. They’re also able to find the occurrences of chiasmus, even if they can’t adequately describe what a chiasmus is or why it’s such an effective device. It’s a really great “light bulb moment” when I draw an X on the board and put “country” and “you” on the top points, then “you” and “country” on the bottom.
We spend a fair bit of time analyzing the speech. We talk about the content (what was his big idea? what is he asking for? what does he want his audience to do, think, feel, or believe?) as well as the construction (why do you think he chose THIS word instead of THAT one? Why does he keep saying “any” in the bit that says “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe“? Why does he pause here or there? Where does he raise his voice or quicken his pace and why?). I want the students to not only be able to appreciate the story of a speech, but to be able to recognize and think critically about the structure of it – how is it built? How is language manipulated to the speakers purpose? Show me the strings in the puppet show, please, and tell me how they work to make the whole thing move.
For the most part, I got some enthusiastic participation in classes last week. Some of my kids – a surprising proportion, actually – really seemed like they were starting to get it. I have high hopes that our forays into the investigation of rhetoric will be lively and fruitful. I’m going to learn a lot this semester.
I really do love my job.