How First Year Writing Courses Can Revitalize Democracy

What follows is a synthesis of conference welcomes written by SUNY Council on Writing President Michael Murphy in the years since the current administration has held office. In this time, the role of the writing educator in nurturing critical thinking, objectivity, and self-reflection has never been more vital to sustaining democracy and defining the identity of a citizen-thinker.

The work of teachers of writing and rhetoric, especially at public universities, is perhaps more important right now than it’s ever been. Public discourse in the U.S. at this moment—and probably globally—is in a state of crisis. According to the Washington Post, by the 1000th day of his administration in office, the current U.S. president had made well over 13,000 false or misleading public statements.  As we approach another national election, the biggest social media site in the world—and thus the largest publisher of news and opinion—Facebook, still refuses to take down political ads containing patently false information.  Last November, the leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee—reputedly the most deliberative body in the world—acknowledged repeatedly that he would refuse to read evidence presented to him in Senate impeachment trials (which of course means he’d fail all our first-year writing courses!). 

When political discourse first ramped up in advance of the 2016 presidential election, I couldn’t stop thinking about those old bumper stickers, the ones that read:  Think Education’s Expensive? Try Ignorance. I think we’ve been learning since then, and almost daily, all about the cost of ignorance.

By mrsdkrebs, licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is something we should all see as urgent, especially if we teach what we talk about as “rhetoric” to college students, most of whom are just beginning to recognize themselves as participants in civic life.  We’re in the anti-ignorance business, and the good health of public discourse, which seems to me in crisis right now, really needs us I went to graduate school at a moment when an interest in the connections between Critical Theory and Writing Studies had led us all to think that Quintilian’s famous suggestion that rhetoric was about “good people speaking well” seemed antiquated and kind of quaint.  But the need for good people speaking honestly and reasoning in good faith doesn’t seem quaint anymore. A quick look at the comments section of any newspaper will reveal a level of misinformation, irrationality, myopia, and bad faith arguments that none of us would tolerate in any of our first-year writing classes. Too many citizen-readers gather their information from single sources that they don’t know how to evaluate, often news feeds, retweets, or mass email forwards that obscure the reports’ true origins, content to hear news that (factual or not) reaffirms what they already believe.  And far too many citizen-writers fail to consider either evidence for the claims they make or the real effects of those claims, which range from the spread of falsehood to incitements to violence.

There are lots of reasons why what we do as writing teachers matters, to be sure – writing well opens socio-economic doors, gives one a seat at any number of tables, and provides an invaluable mode of personal reflection and gratification. But the most important reason seems to me pretty simple at this vexed historical moment: Writers learn to think. They learn to analyze arguments, respond to the assertions of others, and evaluate and assimilate sources, an increasingly complicated problem these days. Good writers, further, learn the habits of disinterested inquiry, rigor, the careful assessment of evidence, and a humble respect for truth and honest insight. As Quintilian would attest, good writers become good citizens. And historically, teachers of writing and rhetoric help them with this.

Never in my lifetime has the world needed a really good first-year writing course more than it does right now.

So I’d like to suggest to my colleagues across the state who teach first-year writing something that’s really pretty simple: that we keep in mind our responsibility as rhetoricians to help enable the kind of healthy, intellectually honest public discourse that democracy depends on.  In part, I think this means resisting what’s become an increasingly common assumption over the last two or three decades—that higher education is a personal investment rather than a public good.  I know that—while I of course want my students to find economic success—I myself in the end am a good deal less concerned that I prepare students to be good job applicants or workers than to be engaged and critical citizens. I’d love it if my students resisted easy answers, could survey and evaluate relevant information, were good at really trying on the positions of others in discussions, held a measured respect for the consensus of experts (like scientists, for example), and could argue cogently in good faith.  That’s something I think is worth all of us working really hard for.

Let me go one step further, too: If writing courses matter in promoting public citizenship, as I’ve suggested, so do faculty organizations like the SUNY Council on Writing. On one hand, we disseminate ideas about the teaching of Writing and Rhetoric—which is especially important in our field, since so many first-year writing teachers work without institutional support to travel to national conferences. 

But second, we also advocate for the interests of Writing teachers in the system.  In the past, we’ve produced resolutions on assessment, academic labor practices, and educational technologies (like Massive Open On-line Courses). The Council on Writing has been around for 40 years now.  Its mission at first was largely about faculty education, professional development, and the dissemination of ideas about teaching college writing; lots of people in ENG departments around the system wanted to know more about Composition Theory, something they didn’t really get at that point in graduate school, and we’ve hosted an annual conference since about 1980.  But we also see advocating for the interests of writing and writing teachers as an important part of our mission and have in recent years produced resolutions on such topics as assessment, distance learning, and equitable labor practices in the field.

I come to you this fall, then, with a truly renewed sense of the importance of the work we do, which has never seemed to me more vital than it does right now.  So get involved.  All are welcome—we appreciate and depend on your participation.


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