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Category: Rhetoric

In Which I Consider Truth and Deception as Pedagogy

In Which I Consider Truth and Deception as Pedagogy


So amidst the avalanche of end-of-semester emails I received this go-‘round (“my grandma’s cousin’s brother’s goldfish died tragically, and I couldn’t write my paper and I know that the semester is over, but I need an extension” – do these kids think that the bills never come due? Things can just be put off and put off without question?), I also received a link to a list of Magna Publishing’s top 15 teaching and learning articles.

There are so many great articles there (ahem, yes, fifteen, indeed, yes, I see that in the link), and I’m reflecting on two in particular right now – the first being the one about students lying (“Research Highlights How Easily and Readily Students Fabricate Excuses”) and the second being the one about mindfulness in the classroom (“Moving from Multitasking to Mindfulness”).

The general take away from the first one is that students lie – a lot – about their (in)ability to complete various tasks they are set for class, regardless of the weight those tasks carry. I have been considering this a bit recently, as I continue to develop my teacherly husk: that thick skin that allows teachers to look into the tear filled eyes of a (usually mediocre to poor) student pleading for more time, some flexibility, just a day or two more for that assignment because my mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/myself has become ill/died/suffered a mysterious ailment/unlucky or lucky event at which said student must be present to give support/weep/provide medication/give away the bride. I know this isn’t new – all teachers have stories of students who have sidesplittingly hysterical excuses, threadbare in detail or as intricately plotted as Sheldon’s Maggie McGarry alibi for Leonard (which failed, I might point out, due to Leonard’s own inability to continue the lie).

I have had students request extensions due to serving jail time (at which point they got bronchitis due to the a/c being too high), deaths of various and sundry grandparents (I myself dread the day my own grandson goes to college, because I am sure that will signal my impending demise as soon as he has an inconvenient due date), and of course the old standby of computer problems (regardless of the fact that all campuses are filthy with computers for student use).

Passing judgment on a student’s honesty is a real problem for me, because I recognize my own weakness in this area. I am very much an empath, and really do understand what’s going on with my students — both the honest issue – that they didn’t do the assignment and now want to avoid the consequences — as well as the student who legitimately has troubles that cannot be avoided merely by planning better. I get it – life happens, and this is just a writing class, just college, just something that they have paid to take part in. So I tend to be very forgiving with my students, and I always go into the semester with the intent to regularly wear my “bitch lips” even to the point of wearing uncomfortable shoes and tight panty hose to help me remember to be “mean.” This rarely works, partly because I try to treat others as I would want them to treat me (honestly, and as helpfully as possible) and also because I fear I’m somewhat of a pushover.

However, with this article’s rather depressing takeaway – that students lie regularly, frequently, and without compunction, I think I have develped a bit more of that teacherly carapace. The research done by the authors of the paper reveal that “fraudulent claim making was utilized by as many as 70% of American college students” and that this places the problem squarely on par with that of plagiarism (“Research Highlights”). I would be (a) lying myself and (b) crazy if I said that I didn’t know students were lying to me when they offered excuses. I recognized before reading this paper that the number of legit excuses I was offered was probably pretty small; however, I didn’t think it was this high.

I’m not questioning the research itself – I’m questioning whether or not I should tighten up my own approach, being less flexible, and engaging in more “no, because that’s the rule” type of dealings with students. That has always seemed to me the epitome of poor form – telling anyone (other than a toddler) that your response is predicated simply on an arbitrary rule seems…I don’t know, petty, I guess.

My own understanding and appreciation for pettiness changes, though, when I am looking at a list of page after page of papers to read that other students managed to create, revise (hopefully) and submit in a timely manner (yes, some so timely that they squeaked in with seconds to spare, but timely is timely). I am troubled by this as it pertains to me and my classes, and my own approach to pedagogy, and I am mindful even more of the learning opportunity this provides to my students – that is, learning that they can pull the wool over my eyes.

This is especially true when we consider the closing paragraph of the article in which the authors specifically address the students’ assurance that their lies will be accepted by the teacher: “the study described here found that individuals do engage in reporting claims in an attempt to deceive their instructor even when motivated by academic tasks with low academic consequences and, possibly more alarmingly, that many students possess great confidence in their abilities to “get away with” reporting fraudulent claims” (“Research Highlights”). If my students believe that they successfully floated a lie down my river with nary a cocked eyebrow from me, will this alter their approach towards their schoolwork in other classes? Will it make them bolder about their lies, and encourage them to move on to other, more damaging forms of dishonesty? Is the excuse that grandma fell and can’t get up just a gateway drug to the intoxication of plagiarism?

I have a Power Point I use at the start of the semester to review the high points of the syllabus and what’s expected, and the final slide says that I will trust and believe in them unless and until they give me reason not to. I think this slide may have to get the axe in this semester’s revision, and that makes me sad. To deal with my students from a framework of distrust seems like the wrong way to enter into the student/teacher dynamic.

This brings me to yet another portion of the article that seems to be underplayed, but that might be the most important part of the article: students say that they don’t believe that their own truth spoken to a teacher will have the result they want – an extension of time to complete a task (or, to put it more simply – an avoidance of the consequences of their actions). On the one hand, that troubles me greatly, that students don’t trust their teachers to work with them rather than to be hardasses about the arbitrary rules.

On the other hand, I return to the ultimate issue here – students wish to avoid unpleasant results of their own actions, and with each lie they tell and pass off, they learn that there are even less repercussions. That’s not what we want school to teach students at all. I vascilate, but I ultimately return to that – I have a responsibility to help students become better people, not just better writers, and that means holding them to what they agreed to do by signing up for class and not immediately dropping it when they read the syllabus.

And in keeping with the theme of my blog, I want to acknowledge the rhetorical choice I have made in choosing to write about this problem using terms eschewed by the original authors of the paper – for me, people (regardless of whether they are students) don’t “fabricate,” engage in “dishonesty,” or make “fraudulent claims.” There is the truth, and there’s a lie – perhaps I am being entirely too strict in my world view, but I don’t see the help in calling this anything other than what it is: a student lying to a teacher. Speaking words that didn’t happen, or that shade the situation to lead someone to believe something contrary to what they would if given all the facts – these are all pretty ways to say that a lie is being told. So yeah, that slide is coming out of my Power Point.

In Which I Consider Rhetoric, Rejuvenation, and Recharging

In Which I Consider Rhetoric, Rejuvenation, and Recharging

I know I am so incredibly lucky – I have so many things in my life that bring me joy: my puppies, my running, my work, my family (“joy” might be too strong a word there – let’s shoot more for “it’s complicated”). All those things, all kidding aside, do truly make me happy and recharge my batteries when they are low (but then again, some of them also drain my batteries sometimes, too, so…hmmm. Perhaps I should limit the asides I’m making here – I won’t ever get to the point).

Work is one of those things that brings both exhaustion and rejuvenation into my life. Working as an adjunct is one of those states of being that you can’t really understand until you actually do it, and for longer than a semester. First of all, it’s never certain. The length of a semester is all the job security I have, and 16 weeks isn’t a long time (it’s even shorter when it’s over the summer and magically turns into 8 weeks, but we are expected to convey in 8 weeks what normally takes 16). The little things become all the more trying as the semesters pile up: packing and unpacking my “office,” multiple times throughout the day, for instance. At first I thought of it as working from my car, but it’s not even that. I work from my rolly bag, and while it really is bigger on the inside, it’s only moderately so. The problem comes from the constant state of impermanence. It’s exhausting.

I was talking with some of the students at the community college where I work, and as I believe we won’t ever start to chip away at the more insidious aspects of our class system until we start talking about our incomes openly and without fear, I told them how much I made per semester. They were sufficiently horrified, and one student blurted out, “Good god, why do you do it?” Her tone and her face revealed not a small amount of her belief that I – and many other adjuncts – were certifiable, if not beyond hope.

I explained why I do it – and it really is as easy as “I love what I do,” even as much of a cop out as it sounds. Teaching scratches my advocacy and activism itch very nicely, it offers me (some) freedom of scheduling, and if I am smart and spend my money wisely (ahem, perhaps “save” is the better term here than “spend”), I can actually plan to take a whole summer off, even if it means no pay check. I hope that happens, actually, whether it’s this summer or a future summer, because I would love to see what I got written with that amount of time on my hands. I have a manuscript sitting patiently in my brain, but it’s hard to work on, and having a large amount of time that I would dedicate to it might be just the thing I needed. I could give to my manuscript, and recharge through my running (with Straxi and without).

But a big part of why I do love what I do is the interaction with students. My grandma taught elementary school, and she said that the children kept her young. I understand that better now, and find that my time in the classroom (usually) lights up the burned out bulbs that develop in my internal string of Christmas lights.

I have a class at Green University that is made up of nearly all engineering students. It’s the advanced section of the university writing class, considered Honors, and you don’t get in this section without having a little more going for you upstairs than the average student. These guys and girls are young, all very traditional uni students in the sense of age, privilege, and diversity (I have a couple of students who are Hindu, some girls, a couple of mixed race students, but most of them are white males). There is a row of conservative, truck driving, boot wearing, country music loving, conservative Young Republicans who don’t usually have much to say in our loud, almost-diverse-but-not-quite class, but they know they are outnumbered, and as such, they don’t say much. This is fine with me, because I’ve taught my share of conservative, white, wealthy students – including the one who very memorably told me that Obama was not American, but Kenyan, and he was serious, straight up, this was a fact to him, without doubt, and he didn’t question that belief for a second. I am happy to have a group who is young, energetic, and who don’t make me question the future of our culture quite so much.

I can forgive myself for catering to the more open minded of my students in this situation, I think. They are just so rare, to be honest, and when I run into them, they are usually loners. This is a pack, and it’s a sight to see: a feral pack of independent-minded, open minded, questioning students who toe the line only insomuch as they dance on it.

So this group of students give me as much – if not more – than I give them. I haven’t taught a bad class with them (yet), and that’s largely because they are so present, and so willing to work and think and speak their minds – my energies aren’t dedicated to trying to keelhaul words out from between their tightly clenched lips.

Today we discussed genre, and we read Kerry Dirk’s “Navigating Genres,” discussed it for a while, and then launched into one of the more fun exercises I have found for helping students think about why genre matters, how it functions, and all the various vagaries that exist around it. I have the students write a letter to an inanimate object – but not just any type of letter – it’s a love letter. We have to guess the object, and they can’t tell us what it is in the letter.

I wrote my letter to my running shoes. I always try to do the work with them that they are doing, when I can, and in this instance, I felt like it was important. These ARE engineering students, after all, and I couldn’t be certain any of them would know for sure exactly what a good love letter sounded like, much less be able to replicate one adequately that could also be read out loud in the classroom. They might not have blushed, but I was afraid I would.

I noticed one of the conservatives waving his right hand around as he talked to his buddies. “Inanimate objects, only,” I stressed again.

One of the really great students in the class, and one of the more socially awkward ones, volunteered to read his love letter. He stammered and struggled, but soldiered on. Another student, whose hair has never been free from oil all semester, guessed what inanimate object it was addressed to (Metal Gear Solid, I think, or another one of the first person shooters that has just come out), and the two high fived.

Letters to cars, trucks, and laptops were read, and no one was teased. No one was forced to read their letter, nor did I have to “make” anyone read theirs. They were all volunteers, even happy volunteers, and the work felt less like work and more like just plain fun. They charged my batteries for me again.

I Do Some Reclaiming

I Do Some Reclaiming

So I told my sister I was writing again, and gave her the address of the blog. She texted back and said, “What’s that?” Seeing as how my sister is definitely smart enough to know about the second part of the title, I figured she must be asking about the first: Rhetorica.

So I decided to dedicate a little bit of time – finally – to writing about this scary, sad, ultimately wonderful elephant in my room: rhetoric. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love thinking about how each of those activities are done, and what they bring to our lives, and…well, everything about them. So it was no real surprise when I went off to college (later in life, yes) and wound up (sort of by accident) in a program centered around rhetoric. I had never heard of rhetoric, other than when we talk about the rhetoric of politicians, and their lofty cries for us to “cut through the rhetoric and talk about the issues!” Well, rhetoric IS an issue, and it IS a legitimate field of study, not just a bunch of pontificating wind bags yelling about whatever social cause best raises votes for them.

When I say rhetoric, I’m thinking somewhat of those things and actions, but more I am thinking about why we write the way we do, and how we teach students to write the way we do, and what writing does for us as humans. I’m thinking about the reasons we put this word in front of that one, and what actions that brings about. It’s a study of the philosophy of communication, essentially (put very simply) and it’s an area that I came to late in life. Nonetheless, I love it.
In college, I wound up studying rhetoric sort of by accident. I attended school in an area where there were multiple colleges around, and since the school I was not attending offered an English program, the college I was attending did not. It did, however, offer a program in Rhetoric. Since I had already tried out the college WITH a lit program, I most certainly had no plans to return – that college and I had come to blows. I found, instead, a college that (oddly enough, given how much I hated the state I was living in) was home. It fed me intellectually, and I even made some friends. Suddenly realizing you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing just what you should be doing is a really strange sensation when the rest of your life has been mired in questionable choices and even more questionable consequences.

But that’s where I met rhetoric – if I was going to study language and writing, it would have to be from the standpoint of rhetoric – the philosophy of writing, essentially – and not what I thought I wanted: literature. I wanted to learn how to parse a poem, how to pull apart the threads of Crime and Punishment and The Yellow Wallpaper. Instead, I stumbled into my real love: Women’s Studies. That’s where I wound up, and returned for my terminal degree in rhetoric later.
Rhetoric and women’s studies are a synergistic fit, if you will pardon my dip into business buzzwords. Women have typically been understood not to have had any place in speaking or in creating texts, and have systematically been placed in situations and given “choices” that keep them from speaking from a place of authority, or even speaking at all. So I began by studying those things – societal things – that prevent women from being taken seriously as speakers, creators and conveyors of knowledge, and instead focus on the thoughts and communications of men.

Of course, just like with so many other things we try to prevent people from doing, we can try to prevent all we want, but human nature being what it is, if someone wants something badly enough, it’s going to happen. Women, even while being constrained to the home, the parlor, the menial serving job (usually women of color), went on and created and spoke, even as they were limited in so many other ways. Those speaking women who ultimately were successful, though, gained that success by working within the bounds around them, and stretching them just enough to wiggle a bit but not enough to raise (many) alarms. Next thing you know, Nellie Bly is doing the Journalist’s Sidestep and then women are wearing pants and dogs and cats are living together.

So I developed somewhat of a love affair with not just rhetoric, but with Rhetorica. Rhetorica is the female embodiment of rhetoric, and it was Andrea Lunsford’s book I saw, constantly, in my head, as I tossed around names for the blog. Of course I knew I would pull out Reclaiming Rhetorica from my shelf and revisit it as I was working on various pieces for this blog. But as I thought about names, I couldn’t get the concept of Rhetorica out of my head. Rhetorica represents, in female form, the purposes and canon of rhetoric.

When Andrea Lunsford published her compilation of essays about women in rhetoric, Reclaiming Rhetorica, she pulled together writings by some of the big names in our field: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Jan Swearingen, Cheryl Glenn, all women writing about other women writers – important writers, not just to the study of rhetoric, but to the study of the country and our history. Ida B. Wells, Margery Kemp, Aspasia, Sojourner Truth are all included in the thinking and writing done for Reclaiming Rhetorica. Women writing about ignored and forgotten other women, doing something that classical rhetorical studies says doesn’t and didn’t happen.

We teach our students that women didn’t write, communicate, create, due to their standing in the world as the softer gender, but that’s a fallacy. We wrote, and we wrote a lot. We communicated, conveyed our thoughts and our fears, we taught and educated ourselves and each other. We didn’t limit ourselves to the standard, classical, masculine idea of communication and rhetoric, but instead we blurred the lines and definitions surrounding rhetoric, and we began to slip some spies behind the lines. But they weren’t bringing information back to us – they were digging in in the trenches, and taking information inside, sort of like Jeff Goldblum smuggling the virus into the aliens’ space ship in Independence Day.

I couldn’t shake the image of Rhetorica, holding her enormous sword, bound in her robes and barefoot, with horn blowing cherubs on each side of her, and I knew I would have to revisit this text. I sort of dreaded it and looked forward to it, honestly. I dreaded it because it was on my exam list when I studied for my terminal degree (a very apt name, I think, for this state and stage of education). But I also looked forward to it because I wanted to see if I could understand it better than I did the first few times I read it.

Because it was important to my Master’s thesis I wrote, I did spend a lot of time with it. But it was also important to the Ph.D. exams I sat, not once but twice, and failed both times.

Yeah, that was fun. Fun times for sure. Nobody was more shocked than I was when I bombed the exams the first time, but there had always been this knowledge in me that I wouldn’t finish school as I intended: with a Dr. before my name, on a train called Tenure, running along its own set of tracks. Nope, I knew that wouldn’t happen. Everyone around me acted like it was a given, I would move through all the requirements of school without problem, but I knew I was going to go to school until they told me I had to stop. I knew that it wouldn’t be “Please stop now, you’ve crossed the graduation stage, you can stop dissertating,” but instead it would be a “Please stop now, you’re out of mental quarters for the machine.” I knew when I went off to school that I wouldn’t be able to finish, but I was surprised that I managed as much as I did. But at the same time, when I sat the exams the first time, I didn’t expect to fail. How’s that for some cognitive dissonance? I didn’t expect to finish my Ph.D., but I was shocked when I didn’t pass my exams – that makes no sense. But there it is.

And don’t for one second think that I sabotaged myself – I tried as hard as I could, and worked as much and as hard as I could, with the tools and abilities that I had, but I was just in over my head.

I don’t really cry about it anymore, but I did for a while. When I got the call from my mentor asking me to come in to see her after I sat my exams the second time, I knew it was bad. I had, after all, failed once before, but that time I got an email from her, explaining what was to be done. So I waited all that long weekend – my mentor and the others on my committee had waited to let me know if I passed or failed until the very last day they had, which was a Friday. So we made arrangements to meet that Monday, and I lived through that long, long weekend, when I imagined all sorts of horror shows. Did I accidentally plagiarise? Was some of my work actually something I took from somehwere else and lazily didn’t mark it as such? I was horrified at this possibility, and it grew in size as I worried and fretted all that long, long weekend. I don’t think they did this on purpose – I never will be convinced to assign any malice to the women who sat on my committee. The fault lay in me and my own shortcomings, my own inabilities to want hard enough this thing that was ephemeral and that demonstrated itself through some letters after my name.

Ultimately these ladies were kind enough to let me revise my life plan to be a second Master’s degree in rhetoric and composition, and I wrote another thesis based on the one single set of exams I had passed: radical pedagogy. Again my love of activism and striving to right massive wrongs bailed me out, just as it had when I was so unhappy at Big Uni #1 and moved on to Small Uni #2 and transferred to study women’s studies. So I revised my exam (drastically) and turned it into a pretty spiffy thesis, and suddenly was graduating, a happy turn of events that grew from a sad failure.

I sat in front of Dr. Mentor’s desk, with Dr. SecondMentor beside her, both across from me, and was probably the least surprised person in the room when Dr. Mentor said, “Because you didn’t pass the exams, you’ll have to leave the program.” I actually was surprised, honestly, but not at what they said, but at how unsurprised I was. I knew this had been coming, but it never occurred to me that there was an official song and dance that had to be performed. Sort of like turn in a circle three times, say “I divorce thee” each time, then spit, and your marriage is dissolved. At one point, Dr. Mentor2 commended me for taking things so well – I don’t think either of them had ever recognized how fully I expected someone to pop out from behind a potted plant in the library and yell, “IMPOSTER!” I know that this sounds like I was suffering from a good dose of Imposter’s Syndrome, but I wasn’t. This wasn’t “I’m afraid I can’t do this,” but a knowledge. And it came and went in terms of strength – I knew after I had been in school a while that my Master’s (the first one) wouldn’t be a problem, so much, and when my graduation was put off because I hadn’t quite finished dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on my thesis, I really DID have a crying jag and fit, one more suited probably to the later polite dis-invitation to study at Really Great Purple U, sitting at the desk of Dr. Mentor.

So it really stands to reason, I guess, that I chose a picture that’s on the cover of Reclaiming Rhetorica, to go with my love of running and of rhetoric, to be the central image of my blog. We’ve been through so much together, after all.