I begin every semester by presenting Kenneth Burke’s parlor scenario to my students, which describes an “unending conversation” taking place in a “parlor.” This scene symbolizes the broader public debates individuals may enter throughout the course of their lives. Burke insists that the conversations have no single origin or termination and that we must be prepared to listen deeply and empathetically before jumping in, which is an especially important lesson for an undergraduate in a communication or rhetoric course. My mission is to facilitate a transformation from passivity to activity, where students grow from vessels collecting information – the traditional model of secondary education – to active agents critically contributing to important unending public conversations that may directly or indirectly impact their daily lives. To achieve this long-term outcome of rhetorical education, I have four specific teaching goals:
First, I aim to cultivate a safe, mindful, and empathetic climate in and out of the classroom. For example, on the first day of class, students collaboratively compose a “code of conduct” for our course. This promotes our classroom as an open and safe space; students are free to express their opinions and ideas with the promise of their audience’s attention and respect. In daily discussions, I encourage students to respectfully contribute their views, listen when their peers are speaking, and critically reflect on their own and others’ thinking. As a facilitator and guide of this conversation – which sometimes centers on controversial topics – I intervene if our classroom code of conduct has been violated. When communicating with students, I model this kind of respect, empathy, and mindfulness through personal conversations, email interactions, and office hour meetings with students.
Second, I aim to facilitate student-centered, active learning that invites critical reflection and reinvention. Regardless of the course I am teaching, I want my students to take ownership of their learning and critically interrogate the world they inhabit. When students enter my Critical Thinking and Speaking course, for example, some arrive with previously developed, and perhaps deeply entrenched, political opinions; some do not express a position at all, or even describe themselves as apolitical. I gently guide unfolding discussions about current events and offer counterpoints for students’ consideration. In the basic communication course, I require my students to engage in audience analysis activities and peer workshops and evaluation to foster continual refinement of their own ideas and encourage a collaborative and growth mindset. These activities emphasize the importance of revision and reinvention. In my Communication, Culture, and Sport course, I ask students to attend college or professional sporting events, record their observations, and reflect by analyzing their experiences through the lens of communication and rhetoric theories. In all the classes I teach, I expect rigor in their academic research, and I challenge their arguments by providing thorough written and oral feedback on proposals, outlines, presentations, or essays. Through these multiple avenues, students begin to entertain new ideas and strengthen the work they produce. I know I have succeeded when a student reflects on their experience and has a much more thoughtful position – regardless of what it is – on a topic after conducting significant research.
Third, I aim to provide opportunities for students to join theory with practice and to think, speak, and write critically about issues that have personal and public significance. I encourage students to choose research topics with public urgency and personal importance, and I reinforce this dual emphasis in assignments such as narrative and policy speeches and group-led public forums. For example, former students have researched, written, and presented on pertinent public issues like sexual assault on campus, police brutality, education reform, portrayals of black athletes in popular culture, or gender barriers in sport – selected because the topics both resonated with them and had public significance. In so doing, the students learned more about issues that have deep meaning to them, while also learning to develop strong advocacy positions to ultimately exercise their civic duty to voice those positions in the public sphere. Further, classroom discussions about current events –NFL protests, sports scandals (such as the unfolding and horrific Jordan McNair case on Maryland’s campus), or broader public policy issues like immigration, to name a few examples – also bolster my commitment to civic engagement. In formal course evaluations, students have reflected on these classroom conversations, noting that the application of course concepts to concrete, real-world problems has resulted in meaningful conversations outside of the classroom – in dorm rooms, at campus rallies, in digital spaces, and in other public forums. One particularly salient example: a former student’s speech concerning the University of Maryland’s investment in dirty energy led to a successful campus petition (“Fossil Free MD”), followed by a Student Government Association resolution that later passed demanding that the university system cease its investments in the fossil fuel industry. This is exactly the kind of civic engagement I encourage and support.
Finally, my overarching goal as a teacher is to cultivate a lifelong appreciation of rhetoric. Teaching the ancient through medieval, modern through contemporary, and postmodern or posthumanist theories of rhetoric fosters in students the communication skills necessary to become active agents in their own lives and responsible global citizens. I believe that a rhetorical education can be empowering for all students, not just communication majors. When afforded the space to do so respectfully, the exchange of student ideas leads to both the creation and analysis of academic and public discourse. At the end of any semester, many students articulate their enthusiasm to enter Burke’s parlor on their own accord, and I know I have done well to encourage them to participate in the unending conversations of their lives.