Teaching Rhetoric in an Election Year

Over the past 5 years, I have been lucky enough to develop and discard my own curriculum, as needed.  As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve also been growing as a reader and a teacher, and no part of me believes that these things are not connected.   After graduating in ’07, I was afraid I’d get soft with age and slowly slip into comfortable Mitford Series-style teaching at a public school  (Hamlet, Jane Eyre, The Raven, repeat).  Or maybe I’d struggle through a 3rd rate PhD program and spend the rest of my life apologizing to my workshop students for not being Margaret Atwood or Zadie Smith.

That’s not how it worked out, however, and I have found myself happily embroiled in a community of sweet, hard-working students and teachers who care about them.  The addition of an AP Composition and Language class gave me the chance to refine a friendly, meandering overview of nonfiction and argument into the razor sharp rhetoric-focused demon child of bell hooks, Thomas Huckin, and Terry Eagleton.  I love this class.  The more I teach, the more I learn, the better I get.

This year is special, though, because it’s an election year.  The political arena is a breeding ground of blatant lies and fallacy-ridden spin – perfect for the classroom.  Given the current state of journalism, it is not difficult to find partisan-driven newspapers and blogs that bank on the hope that their readers have no idea of the existence of politifact.org (or have no use for it).

Sometimes I forget that I am not their age.  Sometimes I forget what it felt like to be told for the first time that Adam and Eve was a myth.  It was devastating; a paradigm shift for which I was unprepared. I really could have used some Joseph Campbell to cushion the revelation. It took a while to grow accustomed to the absence of magic.  In that year, I managed to bury most of my literalist tendencies and yet still be completely freaked about Dante’s bleeding suicide trees in the 7th circle of hell.

In the search for complexity of argument, uncovering the impetus behind powerful rhetoric can be deflating at best, and debilitating at worst. While I have happily accepted my bitter fate as a stranded cynic, I feel great compunction at the idea of pulling my students onto the same island.  How am I supposed to keep from doing that without resorting to patronizing essays about polar bears who rescue seals from certain death?

We start each year with William Golding’s Thinking As A Hobby, in which he separates the intellectual wheat from the chaff.  Eschew Grade 3, where the hypocrites dwell in ignorant, satisfied darkness.  Caught yourself listening to Morrissey and blaming The Man for that unexpected STI?  Grade 2 has you in its claws.   Instead, aspire to Grade 1, where Einstein assures that the world requires great attention.  The questions are worth asking, and the answers are worth knowing, even when they don’t match your expectations.

The problem is, in an election year, where do their questions lead?  Nowhere happy.  Voter ID laws rear their heads all over the nation,  just as we’re discussing Jim Crow and The Grandfather Clause.  The other night, I paired up a couple of articles (from then and from now) for discussion, for synthesis purposes, and was just depressed by what I was about to show them.

We’re at our rawest when we are forced to argue the ideals of a stranger, but that’s about the only way to get at the power behind the language.  Still, I wish I had an arsenal of soothing Joseph Campbell to soften and reassure.


I’ve never been a big fan of Emily Dickinson, so I’m not sure why this newly discovered photograph of her has been on my mind since I stumbled across it a few days ago.  I’ve taught her poetry for years (she is a lot of fun to teach because of all that easy-to-mark meter and slant rhyme), and not without interest, but I’d never really sat down and thought about her much past what I was supposed to know as a teacher and writer.   She’s part of the laundry list of writers every American is supposed to know and admire, along with Whitman, Emerson, O’Connor, Steinbeck, etc.

Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner

I suppose I stayed away, too, because I understood that dubious scholars had tried to make a lesbian out of her.  Even I know that trying to make a lesbian out of a long dead historical figure is fruitless.  Retro-fitting language and identity seems clumsy and useless, a shorthand put in place to avoid the more arduous process of  understanding how the complexities of homosocial human relationships worked back then. For what it’s worth, historical fiction often strikes me as just as arbitrarily translative, unless it’s got some awesome time travel element to it (Kindred, Octavia Butler).

When I was afraid to come out in small town Texas, the language around lesbian identity was different (nonexistent in some cases).  Hushed and angry, couched in suspicion or defiance, the language was ours alone.  Now, 20 short years later, it’s a whole different ballgame.  Even the most sheltered closet case can now get to the free internet at a public library, look up the word “dyke,” and see that it’s been reclaimed by proud butches and queers all over America.  20 years can do this.  160 years?  We can guess, but I really don’t believe we could have any fucking clue what was going on 100 years ago in the hearts of those who dared not speak the truth.

Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 The Riddle of Emily Dickinson makes a valiant attempt to read those very hearts, but Patterson has woefully little evidence to support her claims.  Her 400 page tome angered and alienated the very community she sought to embolden, and failed to capture the imaginations of the straight fan (who did wish to know more about Dickinson – just not that). Bishop’s assertion that literary biographies too reliant upon Victorian sentimentality (the very same that Dickinson’s lesser works fall prey to) make for tawdry, insipid reading is one with which I’d generally agree.

However, the raw lines of loss and pain that are threaded through Emily’s letters to Kate had a surprising effect on my skeptical, somewhat embittered heart. I stared at the new photo.  I thumbed through my copy of selected poems and letters. I read these lines:  “Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart? Had not its heart been torn enough but you must send your shred?”  and promptly succumbed to my own fervent wish that they might, in fact, just be in love.

I don’t know how this happened – I’m afraid that in a month or so I might just as likely assert that The Notebook deserved an academy award.