Rhetoric vs. Reality

Below are excerpts of a letter to fellow members of the Columbia community, from Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University

I am writing today to announce a new University Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students and related procedures for responding to such misconduct. This can be accessed at http://www.sexualrespect.columbia.edu. Our goals underlying the new policy are principally these: to strengthen confidence in the University’s handling of reports of sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct, to ensure fairness for all parties involved, and to provide more assistance to students in need. The changes we’ve made also reflect recent guidance from the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and federal legislation, as well as our own community’s recommendations…

So, today’s new policy is one among many reforms we have initiated to try to deal with what is most certainly a national issue and—of greater importance to us—a Columbia University issue.  I have always said, and will do so again, that our responses to this (or any other serious matter) should be guided by our own internal standards of character and basic norms of proper conduct, consistent of course with the law and public policy, but always seeking far more of ourselves than what may be commonly asked.


When I read about Columbia University student, Emma Sulkowicz, dragging her mattress around not only to make a statement but also as her thesis, in the form of an art piece, I knew I found a strong “video aid” for the power of rhetorical devices in the context of mass communication.

For last week’s class blog posting assignment, I asked for a reflection on/discussion of Sulkiwicz’s use of rhetorical devices in the context of politics, justice and higher education.  We have been studying the relationship and/or conflict between the rhetoric used by universities and reality.  Does what a college proclaims or advertises correspond with the college’s reality.  The class and I together defined this “reality” as what they witness daily, what they experience, what they observe.  To branch from the Observation paper I assigned them, which included conducting and documenting an on-campus observation, they had to post a rhetorical analysis of Sulkowicz’ project once they viewed a video of her explaining the project’s amibitions.

As the professor, I was looking for strong rhetorical analysis, but I was also curious to see how they would handle such a heavy subject in the frame of rhetoric usage.  As I read through the posts, pleasantly, I found, overall, a balanced discussion which carried the elements of respect, symbolism, humility and objective analysis.  I even was introduced to new angles of vision regarding the Sulkowicz project by some of the posts.

The assignment, with its required objectivity and rhetorical analysis, was a challenge for me too.  My comments to the posts also had to remain in terms of rhetoric and literature, while I contained my own strong and personal opinions on the matter.

I found that Sulkowicz’ language choices and comprehension of symbolic rhetoric as a tool for mass communication fulfilled my academic preferences in the usage of media in class, while it locked down the interest of the students.  She looked like them, talked like them, dressed like them in neon green shorts and a tank top, yet she asserted bravery, precision, intellect and passion about her project.  They catch a glimpse of the power they are gaining in an English Composition class.  Would Sulkowicz have the ability to effectively illustrate her thesis in such a concrete way had it not been for intellectual skills she has gained throughout her higher education?

Spicer’s Vocabulary Did This to Me

Spicer mixes an extreme variety of form. He may write a poetic letter, a long poem divided my roman numbered stanzas, a brief, four line poem, or a long poetic footnote. Throughout all these different works, the essence of Spicer’s lifestyle and obsessions repeats. Certain words and themes permeate each piece in the collection. I find the title, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, fits comfortably.vocab

It seems that Spicer has a jar of ideas that he plays with, or his own personal vocabulary list from which he pulls words. It is not to say that Spicer is a repetitive writer, or has limitations. This is not the case. Spicer’s work stems from his interior, his personal complexity. A poem from the exterior (what I mean is…), might be an ekfrasis, or a fictional narrative. Of course, Spicer does incorporate these sorts of elements sporadically, but generally, his work sprouts from intrinsic intricacy. It is from his personal list of experiences, thoughts and interests that Spicer extracts his poetic terminology. His use of the “letter” form produces this understanding. Also, he employs realistic names to title and construct poems. These names may or may not equal existing identities, but they do evoke familiarity and a Spicer specific tone. The theme of Spicer’s sexuality reoccurs throughout the collection as an obsession, a benefit and as an obstacle, another example of a personalized intimacy.

Spicer’s work might not be relevant to many readers. The heterosexual reader or the traditionalist reader might not wish to concern themselves with Spicer’s many lovers, his many dreams or his interpretation/adaptation of popular religious text. This does not stop Spicer from utilizing his unique visions as context for a poem. I admire his lack of self-consciousness. He dips in and out of obsession, reiterating Spicer issues and schemas throughout, sometimes risking exclusion. Indeed, at times, I, as a reader felt excluded from some of the work. This is not his problem though. This actually encourages me to abundantly select poetic vocabulary from my-self. Spicer enables me to do so with confidence. At times (actually, many times), I resist self-indulgent subject matter because I fear excluding the reader. Although, when I do allow this writing behavior to occur, I feel most at home. Also, my palette seems brighter, my language richer.

My memory poems are consistently well received. Regardless of this reception, I attempted to defy my inclinations toward confessional and memory. Thankfully, I’ve failed. I’ve since come to realize that my strongest work emerges from the landscape of my-self. When I do attempt to produce work from the exterior, it is most vivid and pungent when framed in a memory or personal correlation.

Besides steering me toward my-self, Spicer’s collection also encourages me to submit to my subject-matter tendencies. There are certain topics, experiences, characters and images I hover over consistently, circling them like a vulture while I write. Unfortunately, I admit this is something I attempt to suppress. I may not always succeed at restraining myself, but the anxiety lingers throughout my process. I fret over sounding repetitive or predictable, but when I do surrender to the echoes in my work, I think the work is stronger. This could be the result of honesty or the result of personal expertise. I’m really not sure what it is, but Spicer projects it. I’m learning that what I feared was an oddity or a dysfunctional compulsion, is really a quality of poetics and art. Since I have relinquished my writing insecurities in this regard and since I have stopped worrying about what my readers will think, I am happier with my work. Now, whether or not my obsessions will matter to others is not my problem.


The Lyrics of a Song

I still have one class to teach today, but I am so inspired by my two a.m. Intro to Lit classes, I am squeezing in a mini-post during the time I usually plan or grade.  This morning, I witnessed what every professor, teacher, tutor or coach lives for: when students use skills and information you have taught them in a natural, innate way.

Last week, we reviewed rhetorical analysis and then segwayed into literary analysis.  We covered literary devices, entered complex discussions on writer/audience interaction, unveiled the problems with unreliable, but charismatic speakers, and we talked about why they should study literature at all.  For homework, each student had to choose the lyrics of any song and analyze both its rhetorical and literary devices.  They had to discover what it is about the language that makes the song so engaging to them.

Today, they brought in their songs.  In groups of three, they shared both their lyrics and notes to eachother.  Then I gave them the task of picking the “best” song out of the three.  Then each group had to build a case for its choice.  During the second half of the class, each group explained and presented their decision.  Because this is only the second week, I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

As they presented, what impressed me most was their natural usage of literary terms.  They analyzed Kanye West’s word choices, Tupac Shakur’s juxtapositions, Rise Against’s effective use of graphic imagery.  Why you should use Tupac to teach literary and rhetorical analysisAs simple as this may seem to many academics or to college students attending more competitive schools (such as the other students I teach who use literary language in daily discourse, which has its wonderful perks too), it is a huge step for these students.  Some I have taught since they first entered as struggling freshman, forced to take Developmental English before they could take the expected English Composition 1.  They were completely unprepared for college level writing.  One student, whom I am teaching now, was also a student in my Developmental (remedial is what this was once named) English class last year.  She explained in the most genuine, but distraught and frustrated way, “I thought I was completely ready for college.  I got A’s, but I’m totally not.”

Today, she discussed how the use of the word, pipe, in the song her group chose was a synecdoche employed to represent drug addictive behaviors.

I watched my students feel validated, respected, pleased to realize that so many of the musicians they hear are also avid users of literary devices.Why you should use Tupac Shakur to teach lierary and rhetorical analysis.


The Internet Caves in on Us

As the internet caves in on us, it’s not seeming to destroy us. I feel pretty normal; I feel pretty happy. I’m writing more. I’m learning new concepts. When a squirrelly mood takes hold; I can go to the internet. Before all the blogs and compulsive learning took hold, I used to workout. A lot. Okay, compulsively. They tell me I was skinny. Was I?

Today, I am blogging. I want to workout, but on this second week of the semester, blogging preoccupies my brain. I can put my feet up and think about things. For example, do I have arthritis in my right hand’s thumb? It’s been aching a little, on occasion, more so when I’m on the iPad for a while. Who knows?

Blackboard is now my job, a system of order that helps prop me up throughout semesters. I’ll admit it, I like teaching more with it. Students have already started blogging. They have to blog about one post a week. They must comment on each others’ blogs. They do the work more regularly now. They know I’ll be reading it pretty immediately as in within a week’s time, unlike a paper, which does not offer immediate consistent feedback. Also the students are reading each others’ blogs. There’s just a bit more self-motivation when they know they’re peers are reading too.

See even here, I’ve changed tones a little bit. From a relaxed point of view to my clear concise “writing center” voice.

This blog is a free write.IMG_0739.JPG

I have never published any rough free writes before. What is this piece of writing? It’s the roughest draft. A brainstorm, of what exactly? No, it’s not a brainstorm; it’s not a draft. It had no body drawn out for it, no skeletal structure. This is me, documenting some thinking. Taking notes on my thoughts?

Do these thoughts have value? Is this writing reading-worthy? Are these sentences trustworthy? No? Because they are disordered? Or are they truth because they are unplanned?

I suppose it’s up to the reader to decide. Is this how Hunter S. Thompson wrote? Not in content, but in process? Thinking and documenting?

I’ll stop here.