Re: Re[6]: Re-examining our practice

Greg Ritter (gritter@FELIX.VCU.EDU)
Sun, 11 Feb 1996 09:36:39 EST

Darlene said:

> But, I'm intrigued. There seems to be an issue of pride here
> the All-knowing instructor and debate with students.

No, I think it's an issue of authority, not pride. Whether we
want to admit it and no matter how much we talk about student-
centered classrooms, as instructors we are in positions of
authority. If for no other reason than we're the ones who give
the grades. When we argue or debate with our students (instead of
more socratic or problem-posing methods) we are in danger of
abusing that authority. That abuse might seem prideful in many
instances, though, both to ourselves and, more importantly, to
the students.

> Again, one of our
> goals as instructors is in fact to get students to think for
> In order to do this the instructor must do at least two things:
be able
> to admit their views or biases and also to create an
environment wherein
> students feel comfortable enough to challenge those. Since
when are we
> always "right?"

I'm not saying we're "always right," but that *sometimes* we are
right. Which means that sometimes the student is wrong. And at
that point I, personally, feel a dilemma between the need to
insure that the student understands the material correctly and
the need to allow the student to be wrong, to allow the student
to come to understanding without being *told* what's right by the
person in authority.

And, the point I've been trying to make, is when the dynamic of
the class moves from a more socratic, problem-posing dynamic to
debate or argumentation then we are in real danger of abusing the

> We should, at least, be able to defend our positions
> and view points.
> I've had many students challenge me. I'm honoured to have them
do so.
> Most every time, I can logically defend my position. Often, on
good days,
> they can defend theirs logically.

See, I think this is part of the problem I trying to muddle
through. Sure, I've yet to meet the freshman that I can't do
rhetorical backflips around, but that's not an activity I want to
get involved in. I like it when my students challenge me--I think
the statement that started all this was when I said "The students
I like best are the ones that argue with me. Of course, they're
also the ones that frustrate me the most." They are often the
students who can defend their position logically and I respect
and like them for that ability, but they are also the students
who often make me step out of the role of "problem-posing"
teacher and into the role of the "banking concept" teacher
*telling* them what's right.

I try not to make my students "defend themselves logically"
against *my* position, because then that puts them in a
rhetorical situation where, because I'm better at this than they
are in most instances, they "lose." I think that's the danger of
getting into debates with your students--you inevitably exercise
the authority that is derived from your superior rhetorical
skills, the authority that got you into the position as their
instructor in the first place, the authority that so much of our
composition pedagogy attempts to rightly subvert and disseminate.

And maybe I should just replace all the "you" in the above
paragraph with "I". Am I the only one who feels this dilemma???

> Worst case scenario: we don't solve
> the abortion but realize we can think unlike one another and
> respectfully defend our respective positions.

WORSE worst case scenario: you defend your position logically,
but the student is unable to defend his/her position logically,
or at least not as well as you defended yours. The student,
however, still thinks of feels she/he is right--and perhaps
"intuitively knows" she/he is right (which also often can mean
they haven't thought it through critically yet). The student
leaves class frustrated because they have been "shot down" by the
authority figure. You leave class frustrated because you've "shot
down" one of your students and that goes against what you're
trying to accomplish pedagogically--makes you feel like a
rhetorical bully.
> I've been challenged too, by students who are more familiar
with certain
> issues and/or disourse communities than I (what do I know about
> engineering? some, not much) and these are prime opportunities
> learning.

That's an entirely different issue. I concede to students who
have greater bodies of knowledge than me in other disciplines all
the time. What do you do, however, when a student challenges you
and continues to persist in the challenge *in your area of
expertise*? When the student interprets an essay in a thoroughly
wacko way that is outside the academic standards we're supposed
to be teaching them? When a student is offereing unconstructive
(even destructive) criticism to peers in workshops?

Sometimes students are wrong. There are times when authority has
to be exercised to correct students. When we exercise that
authority through rhetorical competition (argumentation, debate)
I think we are potentially abusing our position since we are
"using against them" the very thing that we are supposed to be
teaching them. That's the dilemma I am pathetically continuing to
try to express.

I do have a semi-solution, though. When I catch myself entering a
debate with a student I immediately try to shift the role of
"debate opponent" from me, the instructor, to the rest of the
class. If I'm at a point where I have to logically "defend"
myself against the "challenge" (defend, challenge--don't these
metaphors set off the confrontation alarm bells for you all???) I
turn to the class and say "Well, what do you all think of Sally's
position?" or "How could someone respond to what Bobby just
said?" It diverts the authority away from the instructor and back
to their peers.

> Isn't part of the process of learning and writing an exchange
> of knowledge? How many theorists and instructors have not
already said
> that they learn as much from their students as we do from them.
Have we
> forgetten transactional knowledge? Or are some simply fearful
that someone
> else, at any moment in time, can "piss" farther than they can?

No, my fear is exactly the *opposite*--I'm afraid that at any
moment in time I can "piss farther" than any of my students. The
fact is I'm better at rhetoric than they are--I'm *supposed* to
be, that's why I got the job. The vast majority of our students
can't hold their own rhetorically in a debate against any one of
us because we are better trained and more experienced than they

So what are we doing when we get into a debate or argument with
our students?

We're putting them in a position where we are powerful, where
they know we're powerful (because we're supposed to be training
them to be powerful in that area), and I feel like that's a lousy
position to be putting a student in.

I like the students who challenge me because they're smart,
capable, confident and the fact that they feel comfortable enough
to challenge me in class often means that I'm succeeding at
running an open classroom.

I'm frustrated by the students who challenge me because it often
puts me in the position of having to enter into a rhetorical
competition with my student. Since my rhetorical ability is my
source of authority, debating a student means I'm exercising the
authority that I've been trying to disseminate into the student-
centered classroom. Debating a student means you are reclaiming
your rhetorical authority as an instructor, and sometimes it
means the students perceive that you are using that rhetorical
authority "against" them instead of sharing it with them and
using it to help them develop their own rhetorical authority.

Greg Ritter