Reading, Writing, Rhetoric

Erik Esckilsen knows he can't make his students vote -- but he believes he and other professors have a responsibility to help them understand key issues that underpin the election.

November 4, 2014

Autumn in an election year is my favorite time to teach college rhetoric. I’ve yet to find a more potent text on the subject than the modern American political campaign. But my excitement about grappling with what candidates are saying and how they’re saying it also puts me under some pressure. As a teacher whose students are entering their first semester of college (excepting a few transfers), I feel a heightened sense of obligation to help them “read” the campaigns closely and critically -- and to apply their learning at the polls, most of them for the first time.

I’m reminded this election season of an anecdote that Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco shares in his 2012 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, in which Oxford professor of moral philosophy John Alexander Smith tells students that “if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

Smith was speaking, in 1914, about what author Ernest Hemingway more famously called, some years later, a “built-in b.s. detector.” That Hemingway’s subject -- as a practitioner, not as a teacher -- was literature, not rhetoric per se, points to the multi- and interdisciplinary value of being able to sort fact from fiction. Surely, every academic discipline bears some responsibility in furnishing students with rhetorical skills, though these may go by different names in different contexts. In my view, educators have never needed to press students into a rigorous analysis of political commentary -- I call it rhetorical analysis -- more than we do today. As in today today, with the 2014 midterm elections.

The current political culture is a tempest of media, messages and manipulations like nothing the body politic has ever seen. While some students (and some colleagues) may tell us they’re “not into politics,” what transpires in the political arena nevertheless holds implications for society at large -- on campus and off, today and tomorrow. How we understand these implications defines, to some degree, how we connect academic and civic life -- how we guide engaged students toward becoming engaged citizens.

From this vantage, I see three recent cultural developments that challenge young voters in new ways to sift sound reasoning from spin. To be sure, these forces represent a challenge to more than casting the best ballot, but educators can seize the electoral moment to make students aware of how they operate in our classrooms and communities.

1. Big Money

Regardless of where one stands, politically speaking, on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and 2014 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission rulings, corporate personhood and unfettered campaign spending, respectively, diminish young voters’ sense that their voices matter in electoral politics. This isn’t an overly sensitive reaction from petulant youth. Even Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in McCutcheon, reportedly doesn’t deny the ruling will afford wealthy individuals greater influence over elections. College students generally don’t identify with this group.

Add Super PAC-funded attack ads to the mix, and a barrage of vitriol and spleen comes to define a new voter’s initiation into the political process. It’s a game of “Truth or Consequences” on every channel. No wonder so many young eligible voters tune out.

Trouble is, Big Money takes positions on higher education whether students are paying attention or not. The same freebooting capitalist ideology that finds Big Money’s increasing role in politics a constructive development has a thing or two to say about how to assess the value of a college degree -- and specific academic programs and initiatives. To the educator and her students: How does your course rate at a moment in cultural time marked by an ascending consumerist ethos?

2. Big Data

Numbers wield great rhetorical power. They’re ringed with an aura of unassailability, of objectivity, of something like truth. After all, the numbers don’t lie, right? Yet our current cultural obsession with Big Data -- with leveraging the marriage of supercomputing and digital media to find answers to life’s great mysteries -- can more closely resemble an act of faith than an intellectual exercise.

In his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don’t, the author-statistician Nate Silver touches on MIT neuroscientist Tomaso Paggio’s observation that humans possess an evolutionary instinct to seek patterns in random noise. In the effort to find some measure of certainty in our uncertain world, numbers can be made to offer the answers we seek. This making is an act of perception -- of interpretation. As Silver cautions, “numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning. Like Caesar, we may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality.”

(Silver earned the enmity of some Republican-leaning commentators in the 2012 presidential campaign for his rigorously wrought predictions, as reported on his blog, that GOP candidate Mitt Romney would lose.)

Big Data’s role in political campaigns is growing, according to David W. Nickerson, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and Todd Rogers, behavioral scientist and assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In a spring 2014 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, they describe political campaigns’ increasing reliance on large, detailed datasets to find a competitive edge. This trend, they write, has created “an arms race to leverage ever-growing volumes of data to create votes.”

I exhort my students in every course I teach, not just rhetoric, to be circumspect about numbers used rhetorically. A simple principle at the core of quantitative literacy cuts across most disciplines: that the stories numbers tell, like all stories told through any means, are by definition reductions of a larger reality. The richest, densest pie chart is still just a slice of a larger pie.

3. Big Brother

Few of my students seem very concerned about the prospect of their personal email or mobile phone records being hacked by the National Security Agency. But there’s surveillance with a capital S, and then there’s the incidental surveillance to which social networks users subject themselves with each posting and tweet. In a country where there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it’s shocking how few social media mavens in my rhetoric classes wonder why they’re invited onto these platforms free of charge. Students who know how sites such as Facebook function will tell you they’re impervious to the targeted ads that dog them through their virtual lives. But who’s to say these users are consciously assessing every message that comes their way? Do they really know the degree to which the messages influence them?

Of course, having your personal data mined for someone else’s commercial gain is not, in itself, an obstacle to critical thought -- about an election or anything else. But doesn’t it stand to reason that any mechanism that filters information according to its own narrow agenda is antithetical to the freer, more open exploration of possibilities? Virtual life in the social media space is tantamount to one big focus group, with the taste-testers hidden behind algorithms.

My fear here is that students fail to apprehend that what they think of as freedom of choice in the information they seek -- and the purchases they make -- are choices based on a limited range of options computer-generated for them. Developing the habit of accepting, without question, others’ ideas of what’s in your best interest runs counter to the kind of engaged citizenry for which I (among others) am responsible for preparing them.

Big Money, Big Data and Big Brother. Each throws up its own particular barrier to what voters, especially millennial voters, desire most: straight answers. A political culture that has elevated prevarication to an art form and has got it down to a science doesn’t offer them much. On good days, my students dial their cynicism back to skepticism and break the bloviating down into claims, reasons and warrants. They evaluate evidence. They form opinions -- educated opinions of the kind the Founding Fathers thought essential to our democracy.

I can’t make my students vote. For all my efforts, I’m not sure I can make them believe their votes count for much. But if they develop an interest in discerning fact from fallacy in the political discourse -- or in any discourse, including my own rhetorical ravings -- I consider this a success. Political rhetoric may be the urtext for me, but I have to think that rigorous rhetorical analysis as it’s carried out in myriad disciplines can only enrich the important conversations that carry us all forward.

Of course, I’m biased, but I think it’s a good thing that, at the college where I teach, our first-year rhetoric courses are required.


Erik Esckilsen is an associate professor of rhetoric at Champlain College.


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