Like many of my colleagues in the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve spent a lot of time in the first five years of my program teaching (and even more time learning to teach!) college writing to undergraduates. I’ve taught freshman composition at Borough of Manhattan Community and Queens Colleges, completed a writing fellowship at Medgar Evers College, and currently teach research and writing in the humanities and social sciences to juniors and seniors at York College. What was less familiar to me as a new Communication Fellow with the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College is the Institute’s focus on formal oral communication in the classroom. Of course, students in both my composition and literature classes spend plenty of time — at least half the period — talking to each other. Like most English teachers, I assign discussion prompts along with readings and put students into small groups to hash out these questions before responding to the whole class. Yet, I seem rather to have inherited these practices from my old teachers than to have thought about how to structure them into my syllabi and align them with my learning objectives. It occurs to me that, until this year, I’ve never tried to teach my students how to speak in class, nor made that teaching part of my syllabus.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to structure class discussions around a specific set of learning goals — especially how students can use what they are saying in class as pre-drafting exercises for their more formal communications. One of the core principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing throughout the syllabus as a pedogogical tool rather than merely as an instrument to assess student learning — what’s known in WAC lingo as “writing-to-learn.” Likewise, in a truly communication-intensive course, the goal of classroom discussion and oral presentation should be more than simply to demonstrate what students have learned at the end of a reading, unit, or course. More than that, oral communication in the classroom can be — should be — an opportunity for students to practice the rhetorical moves they will use in their formal writing and public speaking. Students should be speaking not simply to demonstrate prior learning, but also to activate new learning. After all, the elements of persuasive writing we teach in the classroom — argument and evidence, audience and tone, clarity and structure — have their roots in the Classical rhetoric of oral argument. Moreover, I suspect, students already have a sense of what these things sound like, even if they don’t always know how to translate that sound into their own writing. Indeed, even before my conversion to CAC principles in the classroom, I have long suspected that much of the “jerkiness,” the lack of fluency, in students’ writing comes from their never having spoken about what they’re writing — perhaps never even having read their writing aloud, even to themselves.
With these considerations in mind, while designing the theme and choosing readings for my new Research and Writing in the Majors course at York College in Jamaica, Queens, I thought about what would not only engage students’ interest, but also provoke strong opinions and stimulate lively classroom discussions. Our theme (arrived at after some trepidation, which I will discuss later) is “Policing the City,” and the readings revolve around U. S. District Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s opinion in the the case of Floyd v. City of New York – the “stop and frisk” lawsuit against the city and its police department — which was filed just two weeks before the start of classes at CUNY late this summer.
The attractions of this theme were two-fold. First, not only was the case much in the news and, therefore, already familiar in its basic facts to most of my students; many of my students are African-American and Latino youth from high-crime neighborhoods in the city and, therefore, much more likely to be the targets of stop-and-frisk policing than their cohorts at, say, NYU or Columbia, as Judge Scheindlin’s opinion explicitly finds. Second, ever since my own undergraduate years as a Human Service Advocacy major with a minor in legal studies (I worked as a client advocate in community-based HIV/AIDS service), I have come to believe that the study of legal reasoning and research is the best education in persuasive writing. I learned to write (to the extent that I can write) by drafting hypothetical legal briefs — finding applicable statutes and case law and applying them to a set of facts, always with an ear to what would make a compelling oral argument. Even today, as a second-career, PhD student in English, I still have an easier time with the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” than with the distinction between metaphor and metonymy.
I have said that I began this course with some trepidation. Like all my anxieties, this one took the form of two polar opposite fears: either my students would bristle at the presumptions of this middle-aged, white guy with his New England speech patterns, and shut down before the conversation even began; or else they would be so animated (not to say agitated) by the subject and their personal experiences with it that they would be unable to analyze and discuss the readings with equanimity. I am happy to report (albeit only 3 weeks into the term) that the sentiment of the class has tended toward the latter extreme: the push-back against personal anecdote and emotional appeal has provided many “teachable moments” already this term. To be fair, I give students the opportunity to pose an argument of their own in the second essay. But at first, I ask them to straight-jacket their opinions, and simply to analyze the Executive Summary of the judge’s Opinion in light of Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker article, which provides some background to Scheindlin’s history of judicial activism. During classroom discussions, to facilitate this dispassionate analysis, I provide a template for students that is inspired by some of the templates in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s composition text They Say, I Say, which guides students to a three-part full response:
- Introduce the source (either the text or the student to whom she or he is responding);
- Summarize or paraphrase the source’s argument; and
- Respond to the source with his or her own argument — either in agreement, disagreement, or something in between.
For example, when one student argues that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy has been an effective tool in fighting crime, another student might be prompted to respond:
I hear you say, based on your understanding of the city’s testimony, that the intrusion on individual liberty is a reasonable price to pay for increased security. While there is a certain ‘common sense’ truth to this argument, as Judge Scheindlin argues, this case is not about the effectiveness of the practice, but rather about its constitutionality. What’s clear from the testimony and the judge’s decision is that there is a clear violation of the the 4th Amendment, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution in the prosecution of this policy. Either of which is intolerable, even in the face of the public’s fear of increased crime rates.
While some might argue that such templates restrict students too closely to a particular rhetorical form, I have found them to be effective means for students to gain initial entry into academic discourse. Even while students are working on the nuances of their arguments, they can begin to think of their oral responses as full rhetorical structures, rather than simple “I agree” or “I disagree” responses.
It’s early in the term. In fact, I’m writing this blog post in between writing the guidelines for our first peer review, which we will be conducting tomorrow! But, based on the classroom discussions our course has generated so far, I expect to see some lively and thoughtful analysis of this judicial ruling. What I hope will come of our guided classroom discussion is that students will have a bank of analyses to draw upon as they write their own opinions of the case in their next essays. Moreover, through their readings and guided classroom discussions of ancillary texts, I want students to have learned a pattern of quote-and-respond — oral and written — that will serve them in their individual disciplines, throughout their college and professional careers.