Not agitation – or worse – contention. Argumentation. Formal presentation of a thesis. Orderly discussion of evidence supporting the thesis. Rhetoric. Statement of belief/probability. “I believe/think this is true because I know that is true” – or – “The evidence seems to show. . .”
For thirty-six years I taught formal argumentative writing in colleges and universities. I taught the millennia-old process of first gathering evidence and then positing a belief or a fact based on the evidence. Millenia-old? Remember Aristotle’s Rhetoric in 325 B.C.E.? “Rhetoric is useful because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites” . . . or – the evidence seems to show. . .
In 1985 I was writing my PhD dissertation in musicology and teaching music appreciation part-time at the local state college. The English Department needed someone to teach two classes in first-year writing – rhetoric? – quick. The music chair told the English chair, “He’s writing his dissertation, so he must be able to teach first-year writing.” After a one-hour course in rhetorical writing, I was hired, forming the new music/English department (not to be confused with a department of English music).
After teaching seven years as chair of music at a different college (PhD finished), I uprooted myself and moved to Dallas to begin another PhD – in creative writing – with a graduate assistantship in Rhetoric – at yet another university. And – when I was ABD – I began teaching first-year argumentative writing at yet another university (still ABD at the previous university). You may say I was (am) stable or dedicated or grown up or some such if you want to . . .
Fall classes at my new university began on August 24 in 2001 – my second year of teaching there. I was getting acquainted with the students and finally facing the reality of the need for some stability in my life. On the third Tuesday of the semester I walked from my office to my 9 a.m. class precisely on time. The students were already in the classroom milling around together – agitated in a way that I knew instantly something discomfiting was up. Several were grouped around the desk of a student holding his obligatory transistor radio. They were listening intently – not to music but to a news broadcast – and I couldn’t imagine what was going on.
“Professor, what’s going on?” How would I know? I’ve been working in my office for an hour. “Listen!” I joined the group around the radio. Someone was reporting from New York that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. And from Washington that a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon. Pundits were prounouncing it a terrorist attack – that an as-yet-unknown terrorist organization had hijacked at least three planes and launched war against the United States. I knew almost instantly my students’ fear and disbelief.
I remembered the day 34 years before when the chairman of my university’s music department walked into our first-year music theory class and announced that the President had been assassinated. What is an 18-year-old first-year college student supposed to think? To feel?
As the adult in the room – the wise 56-year-old professor – surely I should know what to say to calm these 18-year-olds. I didn’t. I assured them that we were safe and that we should wait until someone discovered what had, in fact, happened before we jumped to conclusions.
Classes throughout the building were ending, and I told my students they could leave, they should keep abreast of the news, and that they should not exaggerate their fears by thinking such things as, “Do you suppose . . . ?”
It was some time (years?) later that I realized Aristotle was right. “. . . things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites” – right even if in 1967, 2001, and today that is somewhat difficult to believe.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect of ourselves – I don’t even know yet what I want to do when I grow up – but on the anniversary of 9-11-2001 it might be a good plan to construct arguments about our lives together rather than just arguing.
We might discover that we are the adults in the room.