This is an especially interesting dilemma in the freshman composition classroom, that strange and nebulous course through which students of all disciplines have the dubious benefit of being filtered through, and a course from which I earn my paycheck. The word ethos gets tossed around more than a bit in my class, most often as an abstract mantle we’re meant to put on when we sit down to write. And if that’s my students’ starting point—disguising oneself with authority—the only effective end result is to assert and to convince.
This, at least, was my idea of the writing classroom when I first started teaching, and I failed miserably. Or, to be more precise, my students failed miserably. I was just fine. I could assert and convince! I cultivated ethos! I meted out the grades, after all, which is a really easy and effective way to assert authority. I’d offer up a variety of models to emulate or (even worse) templates to adhere to, and nurtured students by pointing out their many mistakes (“Shame on you – look here at what you’ve done to your ethos!”). Then I suggested they do better next time. I wasn’t teaching writers so much as teaching students that they were not writers.
I could have, at this point, joined legions of embittered writing teachers before me by hunkering down to withstand periodic onslaughts of grueling grading (“Your logos breaks down here!” “Watch your tone!” “Assert, but don’t assume!”), and then reward myself with long summer vacations where I’d undergo resuscitating infusions of reading “real” writers (and maybe pretend that I’d get around to some writing myself).
Instead, I began thinking about what I was assigning my students to write and why they might be having difficulty writing it. Turns out, in more ways than one I set my students up for failure by asking them to argue, to tell the truth (and nothing but), to convince and persuade, without giving them a chance to first convince themselves, or even consider what the hell we (or more specifically, I, the grade-meter-outer) mean by truth. They certainly weren’t learning anything. I forced them to oversimplify a messy and complicated world, and received oversimplified messes; to speak from authority they had no chance of earning in the three weeks before the due date, and received tepid clichés. The best I could hope for is that a few might assert something that I at least agreed with (even if the student did not).
Using the writing classroom as a chance to prove that we know stuff wasn’t working, so what if we used it as a space to admit that we know very little? What if, instead of setting out to prove a thesis, we asked a question? What if our authority didn’t arise from claiming to be the bearers of Truth but from how we go about answering questions that compel us by weighing as many truths as we can find? Is it okay not to know everything, to admit that the world is vastly complicated and exceedingly messy and 5 – 8 pages will barely get us going? Learning isn’t simply about convincingly pretending to know, right?
I began to use the writing classroom for inquiries rather than arguments. The classroom became a space to ask questions, and the world was where we’d look for answers. The students supply the questions, and I do little more than help them shape those questions and offer up suggestions about how they can further complicate their answers. In many ways I don’t teach anything, simply facilitate a space where biologists start rubbing elbows with philosophers, engineers consider neuropsychology, nutritionists converse with historians, and so on. That act of writing on these terms becomes a way to critically think through a problem. We don’t always find sufficient answers—in fact, we seldom do—but when we do, we’re happy to know it opens up to another question.