I Love My Job

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.

images1.jpegI 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 beimages-12.jpeg 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.

images-22.jpegWhen 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.



Filed under Learning, Questions, reading, success!, Teaching

11 responses to “I Love My Job

  1. Re: your comment over on my blog

    Not a spoiler, I swear…

    But I just LOVED the cover blurbs. *LAUGH*

  2. denever

    “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.”

    I can deem any number of things offensive without being personally offended or insulted by them. The distinction is important, I think, because as soon as we say “I am offended,” we have, to at least some degree, made ourselves the victims of the person making the remark. I think that’s what the woman in your class was getting at: a refusal to be victimized by some complete stranger running his mouth on the radio.

    One of the women on the basketball team claimed that Imus’s remarks had scarred her for life. I wish that, instead of talking about her victmization, she had said something like, “Mr. Imus is a shallow, no-nothing ratings-whore who has nothing more substantive to say about a championship team than to criticize our appearance. What does that tell you about him?”

    I hope that one of the things you will talk about in your class is how our thoughts and emotions shape the way we perceive the world. Perhaps you cannot change your initial visceral response to hearing racial slurs. But you can choose between thinking “scarred for life” and “nothing to do with me.”

    Which one you choose will have a lot to do with whether you perceive the world as containing some offensive things or constantly offending *you*. And that in turn will have a lot to do with how happy or embattled you feel as you go through life.

  3. Denever, we talk A LOT about the things you mention, though I have to be mindful of the fact that I’m teaching an ENGLISH class and not an ETHICS class. I’m only able to straddle that line for as long as the material is relevant to the objectives of the class.

    I actually start these conversations with my students by asking about their take on “sticks and stones.” We discuss that language can be VERY powerful stuff, but only to the extent that we choose to GIVE it that power. Words only mean what they mean because we SAY they do – they really don’t have any autonomy beyond that which we choose to bestow. Of course, having said that, I have to also concede here that my own personal belief is that words are the embodiment of thoughts, and that thoughts DO have their own intrinsic power. That, though, is something I tend to gloss over in class – I don’t want their precious heads to explode….

  4. Oh, and yes – I do find myself offended by things that people say that may not have anything whatsoever to do with me. While I understand the tendency to put oneself in the victim role to feel offense, I tend to come at it more from a “your ignorance is offensive to me” stance, rather than from an empathetic, victimized one. I’m more outraged and angered than I am hurt…

  5. Did JFK actually choose those words or, as is the case these days, did he use a speechwriter?

  6. Kizz, I’m pretty sure JFK had a speech writer, but that’s secondary to the point, I think; the structure isn’t any less or more because it was written by an anonymous author. The words are attributed to JFK anyway; does anyone know how to find out who actually writes presidential speeches?

  7. Denever

    “. . .’your ignorance is offensive to me’ stance”

    We’re probably saying the same thing. When I say, “This is offensive,” I’m implicitly saying, “It’s my opinion that this is offensive,” “I find this offensive,” “This is offensive to me,” without saying, “I’m personally offended by this.”

    But because I do believe that how we frame things, in our thoughts and in our speech, affects how we think about them, I prefer the slightly distancing formulation when I haven’t felt personally insulted.

    And while I understand why you can’t possibly get into all of this in your class, I don’t think of these discussions as being about ethics (and, trust me, I can find an ethical dimension in practically anything). I think discussions of speech acts and their effects on us belong to a different arm of philosophy, and because they are *speech* acts, I think they’re relevant to your class. But again, it’s a huge subject and I understand there are limits on your time.

    Re the Kennedy speech: I was going to say it was written by Ted Sorenson, but in the course of Googling to check on my memory (which ain’t what it used to be), I found this, which you may find interesting:


  8. Yes, Denever, we ARE saying the same thing. The offense I feel about things that do not PERSONALLY offend me is of a slightly different flavor than the things that aim directly at me. For example, I am highly offended by the opponents of gay marriage, though I am a straight person in the kind of marriage of which those (ignorant assholes… oh, sorry – did I say that out loud?) people approve. This feeling is slightly different, though, from the feeling I have when someone says something sexist or demeaning to me as a woman or a person.

    I’d be interested for you to elaborate on how you think that speech acts fall under a different philosophy than ethics – the textbook frames them as such, but I will freely admit to not having an adequate background in philosophy to discern how they may better fit into another viewpoint.

    Oh, and thanks for the link!!

  9. Denever

    I was thinking of speech acts in general as falling into the category of philosophy of language, and questions of freedom of speech and speech acts that cause harm (insults, hate speech, etc.) as being part of political and legal philosophy. But in Googling around, I see that many people consider those questions to be part of applied ethics as well, which makes sense.

    I guess it just depends on which aspects of the Imus debacle we want to focus on: the meanings of his remarks (literal and metaphorical), his intentions (joke? slur? both?), the effects on his audience and on the members of the basketball team, the legal/social/political ramifications of the FCC’s response and of Imus’s employer’s response, etc., etc. You could probably spend a whole semester on it!

  10. Denever, we talked about ALL those things. We spoke about the meaning of his remarks, his intentions (we even listened to the actual clip, to get his intonation and the comments that came immediately before and immediately after), the effects on the team (the the effects on us) and the ramifications of the responses. It’s REALLY interesting stuff, especially when discussed in what essentially amounts to a high school senior class (most of my students aren’t really all that beyond senior year as it is).

    I never liked Imus. I never listened to him and never really cared about what he said or did – until this. He’s a communication teacher’s DREAM. I couldn’t have made up a better lesson plan…

  11. feather

    I shall have to read Speer’s Nuremberg speech. I’ve never even heard of it before — my only exposure to Nazi trials is through Hannah Arendt and Eichmann — but I am interested already.

    Also. Hell, even I don’t really know what a chiasmus is beyond recognizing it vaguely as a word my dad once put down in scrabble. The examples on that site — neat as it is — didn’t clarify much. You should make it a special Grammar Wednesday for me!

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