The value of studying rhetoric from within the humanities is also the general cause of untold undergraduate frustration: rhetoric denies us the satisfaction of ever being completely right. To be sure, the forefront of any discipline is crisscrossed with contradictions and uncertainties, such that any decisive step forward is seldom fully assured. But rhetoric is distinct in that students are unmoored from the start; they are asked to weigh opposing views that both hold some measure of truth, to impose interpretations on ambiguous ideas, to grapple with the incompleteness of their own knowledge and then to engage responsibly and respectfully anyway. At its best, a rhetorical education transforms the frustration at never articulating a perfect answer into a foundational curiosity about what else might be going on. At the very least, it poses vital questions about our collective and individual obligations. Through varied teaching assignments at Northwestern and Tulane, I have developed a pedagogical philosophy built on helping students cultivate their capacities to interpret a wide array of texts with care and nuance as well as encouraging them to question the social, political, and economic orders that shape our objects of study.
But instead of privileging discrete rhetorical skills—rhetorical devices, elocution, body language, and speech organization—as ends in and of themselves, my ideal teaching setting involves supporting a student’s sustained engagement with an intellectual problem in order to help them become a more attentive, reflexive, and curious thinker and citizen. In this case, support means: working with each student individually to identify areas of interest and to define an intellectual problem that they find challenging and compelling; structuring the course such that students are introduced to the concepts, methodologies, and models that will help them engage with their chosen problems; ensuring that my own understanding of each student’s topic allows me to not only appreciate their reasoning but offer guidance; providing specific and detailed feedback to show them that they have the capacity to develop their own original ideas and that those ideas are worthy of thoughtful consideration. One of the key advantages to working with the same topic across an extended period is being able to watch how each student’s approach and understanding progresses: one-dimensional interpretations give way to persuasive counter-arguments and then nuanced readings, attentive to contradiction and complexity. Some of the most satisfying evidence of learning is when the questions students ask of each other shift from the generic—questions that could be asked of any topic, that bear no signs of careful attention to their object, and that fail to advance the discussion into new territory—to hard, specific questions that nonetheless demonstrate a commitment to critical generosity, to choosing to understand an argument as the best version of itself and on its own terms.