K.20: Rhetorical Listening: Difference, Materiality, and the Classroom
Reviewed by Kristi Murray Costello, Arkansas State University (email@example.com)
Chair: Amy Lueck, Santa Clara University
Speaker: Esther Schupak, Bar-Ilan University, “Implications of Listening: Rhetoric for the Composition Classroom.”
Nearly a year after proposals have been submitted for the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), the time is now. We attendees ride the elevator downstairs, stand in the inevitably long coffee line, and find ourselves with fifteen minutes to share our work with composition and communication students, peers, colleagues, and heroes from all over the world, many of whom do what we do, what we want to do, or what we used to do. No matter how many times we’ve found ourselves in the front of the room, there exists within us the multi-layered and palpable excitement, nerves, and exhaustion that result from the annual CCCC. The excitement comes from being in a space with brilliant, insightful, and inspiring peers. The nervousness comes from presenting in front of brilliant, insightful, and inspiring peers. The exhaustion comes from taking in panel after panel, finagling free books from publishers, and catching up over too many cocktails with old friends.
As we walk into panels, we can immediately gauge the level of nerves in the room. These nerves affect us all in different ways. For some of us, they make us rush through our presentations too quickly. For others, we go off script and begin to ramble. I want to think that it’s these same nerves and insecurities that cause some of us to neglect roadmaps and pointing words for our audiences, omit definitions of key terms, and flood our presentations with unnecessarily dense sentences, citation strings, and traces of an overly active thesaurus. These defense mechanisms became even clearer when I began reviewing sessions for Kairos several years ago. At times, I have entered a panel, ready and excited to review it, and then five minutes in realized I can’t because I’m having trouble following the speaker’s organization, main idea/s, or purpose well enough to summarize the panel for my readers. Wait, I thought the study was with first-year comp students—when did we switch to talking about Advanced Comp? This term you’ve coined, how do you define it? Are you talking about your study now or someone else’s? Who are you quoting? No, don’t change the slide yet, I’m trying to take notes! I sigh and close my laptop or put down my pen, knowing that I will need to find a different session to review.
This was not the case for Esther Schupak’s presentation, “Implications of Listening Rhetoric for the Composition Classrooms,” during the panel, "Rhetorical Listening: Difference, Materiality, and the Classroom." Early in her presentation, Schupak shared that “the instructor must model listening.” She told us how she does this in her classrooms, but she showed us this through her cogently organized, purposeful presentation, which revealed to me that, though we had not yet talked, she was already listening to me and my fellow audience members.
Schupak opened her presentation by contextualizing her experience, which included her current position teaching writing in Israel, and its connection to her research question: “How do we take such diverse students and bring them together in classroom community?” Then, she stated and substantiated her goal: to show students (and those of us in the room) that “studying theoretical models of listening rhetoric can be productive.” This was followed by a brief and pertinent review of scholarly literature and other pertinent pieces, which included Wayne Booth, Krista Radcliffe, Amos Oz, and psychologist Robert Keegan. Schupak explained how her experience varied from Keegan’s somewhat and that her students responded best to Oz. She displayed key quotes on Power Point slides projected with enough time for us to read them. Next, she outlined her specific strategies for integrating rhetorical listening into her class: “establishing listening rhetoric as a pedagogical goal, modeling listening rhetoric, restating opposing opinion, learning to argue the opposite side, and a letter writing activity.” She artfully brought it all together and back to her personal experience by sharing the questions she began to ask herself: “Do you really listen to your students? Or do you interrupt your students? Do you think about whom you’re going to call on next while a student is still talking? Is the expression on your face or tone of voice dismissive? Do you respect their discourse even if it is expressed in nonstandard English?” After garnering ethos and engaging in some introspection, like many teachers, she had found herself answering too many of these questions less than favorably. She outlined two specific methods for achieving her aforementioned strategies and “clearly defining space for listening in the classroom.”
The first method included having students “walk in the shoes” of their “opponent” through writing a paper on “an innocuous topic” from a viewpoint different than their own. She explained that she chose innocuous topics because she found that it’s more difficult for the students to adopt the opposite point of view with controversial topics. She summed up the aim of the strategy by saying that “the ultimate listening rhetoric is to admit that you were wrong.”
The second method was letter writing. Students in her classes were asked to write a letter to the class once every two weeks about a reading or issue discussed in the class. Then, the class would start with the students reading their letters, followed by time for them to respond to the letters. Of this activity, she said, “This means class started with listening.” At the end of the semester, students wrote a final letter that integrated quotations from other students’ letters. To conclude the discussion of this method, Schupak showed a student comment, which illustrated that her engagement in this process helped her to feel more connected to classmates, a sentiment that seemed representative of the class as a whole.
Schupak concluded her presentation by doing three things: 1) discussing the limits and hazards of her pedagogy (particularly unfortunate instances of students saying offensive statements, ranging from sexist to racist); 2) summing up her strategies; and 3) answering “so what?” She explained more thoroughly how the focus on listening has positively impacted the students, noting that her methods and an overall focus on listening instilled in the students a greater sense of audience because they were ever presently aware that others, not just her, were going to read the things they wrote. As a result, she suggested that her students learned to write to each other and to be more sensitive and willing to hear things outside of their own experiences. Further, it was clear that this experience helped her to feel more connected with her students.
In the end, I’m sure that at some point I’ve been guilty of talking too fast, taking too long, or letting my insecurities lead me to value sounding smart and academic over being understood. Serving as a reviewer for Kairos has reminded me of the importance of remembering my audience who is sleep-deprived and hungry for great ideas, trying to hold on to information and inspiration from multiple sessions, and may even be trying to summarize and respond to my work to share with you. Schupak shared a quote from Oz’s (2005) memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which he described “not pretending to be interested or entertained,” but actually being interested and entertained, and “not politely pretending to listen,” but actually listening (p. 110). As I imagine other session attendees would agree, Schupak’s presentation not only modeled this kind of authentic rhetorical listening, but also made it easy for those of us in the audience to be interested, entertained, and engaged.
Oz, Amos. (2005). A tale of love and darkness. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.