This semester is the first time I’ve taught ENG 211 (Comp 2, or its equivalent). I previously taught an Advanced Composition class for ECPI, but this is a bit different. At ECPI, I had the students for five weeks. They were training for technical careers, and their concern for my English class was less than zero. I had to pander to them regularly, sometimes even bullying them into doing the assignments and not giving me tons of guff about it. (If there’s one thing I hate getting, it’s guff.)
But this semester, I’ve been able to take my time, to craft a syllabus that has fun assignments (at least I think they’re fun). For the first time, I’ve used blogs, asking students to find articles on the Internet that they think are interesting, and to write a blog post on them. They’re also required to comment on two of their peers’ posts.
In theory, the blog assignment was great. It’s essentially what we, as bloggers, do. We observe the world around us, then write about it, and comment on each other’s observations. One thing I noticed, though, was that most students fell into two categories: the first was the passive admirer. They never question or add anything – they just comment with things like “great article!”
But the worse category was the openly combative student. This student only read blog posts about articles that they disagreed with. Disagreement is not a problem; I encourage it on respectful, thoughtful, academic grounds. These are not the grounds on which my students tend to disagree with each other, and several times, despite my lecturing and cajoling, students attacked one another, placing judgments on their fellow students purely on the grounds of the articles chosen. Articles about Planned Parenthood, political candidates, and factory farming drew in harsh personal criticism. I’ve issued the decree banning all writings about abortion and gay marriage because, first of all, they’re polarized issues that elude advanced academic discourse (what more is there to be said about it?), and because they bring out the absolute worst in my students. No matter what side of the line they fall on, they seem incapable, at this point, of discussing it with kindness and empathy. More than once I’ve had to remind my students, after making acerbic statements about homosexuality, that they don’t know who they’re around and who they might be offending.
I’ll be honest: until earlier this week, I had grown pretty tired and downtrodden. I was tired of babysitting my students, of begging them to be kind to one another, to take themselves and their education seriously, to read the assignment sheet and follow instructions. I began to lump them into the freshman stereotype: persistently tired, apathetic students.
But then I read our new chapter, which we’ll discuss next week, about structures of argument. The chapter starts with the Toulmin model. I worked as a writing tutor in graduate school, but I’ll admit, every time someone told me they were writing a paper using the Toulmin method, I referred them to one of the Rhet/Comp tutors. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I mean, look at it!
My eyes crossed. But then I hit up Google, and I found some great resources for applying the Toulmin model to advertisements. My students will do that, then map the model on the board for their classmates, explaining what they learned by using that model.
Which is all fine. But in my head, I could hear their groans and complaints already. This is hard. I can’t read it. What’s a warrant again? I understand; it made my eyes cross.
But then I kept reading. And I found Carl Rogers. And things began to make sense for me.
Psychologist Carl Rogers noticed that often, when people argue, they use the “I’m right, you’re wrong” style of argument. Even in a well-crafted argument, there was a winner and a loser, and no one ever wants to be the loser. Often, this style of argument came from an inability or unwillingness to consider the other side of the issue. Rogers said people needed “to learn and change.” This doesn’t mean that you have to roll over and die and give up arguing your point; it just means that you have to do it in such a way that doesn’t shut down discussion, belittle your opponent, or leave both sides at an impass. It has to be handled with kindness and empathy. Argument should not just turn into a pissing match of who can be nastier or quicker with the insults; it should be civilized, like in Ancient Rome. We should wear togas and orate and approach argument as a gentlemen’s (or gentlewomen’s) endeavor, not a cage fight.
So naturally, this brings me to zombies. As I hit up the Google again for ideas on teaching Rogerian argument, I found an excerpt of a Rogerian essay about zombies (I believe students can purchase that essay, or at least download it, so really, I’m just getting ahead of the plagiarism curve). I adapted the essay’s approach and created a story about zombies and the impending Zombie Apocalypse. After an introductory discussion of Rogerian argument, its properties, costs, and benefits, we begin the following activity:
Zombie Story for Rogerian Activity
It pains me to tell you this, but the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. At this very moment, droves of flesh-eating, brain-chomping zombies are multiplying all over the country.
The Zombie Apocalypse Safe House: just one way to avoid the inevitable, unless the power of Rogerian argument can be harnessed.
You may not be aware of this, but zombies are nothing new. Zombies have been conjured by Chilean voodoo priestesses for years; these priestesses, in an effort to increase crop production and trade in Chile, devised the method of making farm-hands of the recently dead by bringing them back to a form of half-life, physically present but brainless. This practice became so prevalent that families would guard the graves of their recently deceased relatives until they could be sure the body had begun to decay (since this particular brand of voodoo should not, under any circumstances, be performed on decomposing bodies).
In this, the age of the Internet, the secret of this voodoo magic has leaked out via a viral YouTube video, and risk-taking ne’er-do-wells have begun creating zombies from cemeteries around America. Because these risk-takers are merely dabbling and are not connected to the true magic of voodoo, something has gone terribly wrong. They have not taken measures to ensure that the bodies are pre-decomposition. Remember when I said that the magic should not be used, under any circumstances, on bodies that have already begun to decay? Yeah. When zombies are created from already decomposing flesh, we get mutant zombies. We get not the peaceful, hard-working zombies of our neighbors to the South, but are rather the zombies of sci-fi and fantasy, the ones hungry for brains and human flesh. And I’m sorry to tell you, they are on the loose and multiplying.
There is a silver lining. These new zombies may be blood-thirsty killing machines, but they also have the power of reasoning. They have the ability to experience empathy; we know this because they truly seem sorry to bite perfectly healthy live humans in an effort to get flesh, especially humans they knew when they were alive. They can’t help it. They’re just hungry.
As such, they have decided to give us a chance to create an argument, to convince them to stop their killing spree and to co-exist with us, peacefully.
Student Assignment: Rogerian Activity
Your challenge is to create a Rogerian argument to deliver to the zombies. Keep in mind that these zombies have the upper hand: they’re lethal. We need to bring them to a middle ground where both parties can exist peacefully (remember that telling them we’ll kill them all is not likely to bring them over to your side); we also need to figure out their feeding situation, as their hunger seems to be the biggest problem. Remember, these could be your relatives, your friends, even your teachers (or at least they used to be).
In groups, come up with a Rogerian argument. Remember that your tone, your ability to empathize, and your critical thinking skills are paramount to stop what could quite certainly become the treacherous and oft-joked about Zombie Apocalypse. Good luck.
Students will present their arguments to the class in the form of a 2-3 minute Rogerian monologue. The students in the audience should imagine that they are, in fact, zombies receiving the humans’ Rogerian argument. They should be ready to critique each argument, deciding whether the group has presented an effective argument for coexistence, or whether, in fact, the response is merely “Braaaaains.”