Our purpose in this course is to explore how writers implement rhetorical strategies in academic and public arguments. Throughout the semester, we will read theory that deals with key issues in rhetoric, including articles on revision, audience, Toulmin analysis, Rogerian argument, textual and contextual rhetorical analysis, and visual argumentation. Students will simultaneously practice researching, writing, presenting, and revising arguments on a number of issues and for a variety of contexts.
When I started teaching Rogerian Argument, one of the first things I did was watch Carl Rogers’ case study on a patient named “Gloria.” For those who may be unfamiliar with Rogers, he is an American psychologist best known for his “humanistic” or “client-centered” approach to therapy. He coined the term “empathetic listening” to describe the method he used to engage his clients, and his guiding premise was that, rather than telling the client how to become different/adjusted/happy, he would let the client come to these insights on their own by continually rearticulating whatever the client would say. Rogers believed that by creating a sense of empathy between client and therapist, the client gained a much better sense of who they are, what they want, and what they should do in a given situation.
So, how can Rogers work for you in a classroom? Rogerian tactics are very useful to students writing arguments because they force students to take on various positions that they themselves often do not hold. I have had success teaching this form of argument, but I stumbled upon a different use for the Rogerian technique last year teaching RHE 306, and it has to do with qualifying claims.
The idea for this lesson plan came to me while watching the video of Rogers working with his patient, Gloria. When you see Rogers in action, one of the things you notice is that, without any concrete foreknowledge of the actual problem his client faces, he is able help the client come to a better understanding of what they want to say. A client may, for example, state that she is unhappy with her husband because he drinks constantly and then likes to kick the dog. A voice in the Rogerian mode might then attempt to rearticulate the statement by saying something like: “So if I understand you correctly, you are telling me that you are unhappy because when your husband drinks, he kicks the dog, and you don’t like it when he kicks the dog.” The patient can then choose to accept this restatement, or to qualify it further. For example, the client may counter by saying: “No, what I am saying is that my husband drinks too much, and when he does, he likes to kick the dog, which makes me feel sad.” The Rogerian voice would then attempt to rearticulate again by saying something like: “Okay, so it sounds to me like you are saying your husband drinks too much, and this over-consumption makes you sad because, when he’s drunk, he kicks your dog.” If the client accepts this re-articulation, a subtle but important distinction has been made clear to both parties: the client obviously feels sad when her husband kicks the dog, but her husband’s drinking is probably at the root of the problem.
The practice of re-articulation is often quite effective (try it on your partner sometime) and can be used for a variety of activities within the classroom. As promised, the following is a short example of how the technique can be put into action for the purpose of qualifying claims:
Claim (Student 1): People should only eat organic food because it is always better for their health and for the environment.
Rogerian Voice (Student 2): So are you saying thatallpeople should only eat organic food because it’s better for their health and for the environment?
S2: Okay, if I understand you, even people who cannot afford organic food should only eat organic food because it is better to starve in a developing country than to eat non-organic food.
S1: No, that’s not what I’m saying. Let me try again. People in the United States who can afford organic food should only eat organic food because it is better for their health and for the environment.
S2: Okay, so what your saying is that if people can afford to eat organic food, they should only eat organic food because it is always healthier and better for the environment, even if it takes lots of fossil fuels to transport it to your supermarket.
S1: No, that’s not what I meant. What I was trying to say was that if you can afford it, organic food produced locally in the US is better for your health and the environment than non-organic food.
S2: So it sounds to me like what you are claiming is essentially that if they can afford it, American’s should buy locally grown organic food it because it’s better for their health and for the environment.
S1: Yes, that is what I’m claiming.
By letting S2 critically question S1, S1 is able to qualify the claim and comes to a better understanding of what it is he or she is actually claiming. Notice that there is little evaluation coming from S2; instead, S2 uses the technique to critically analyze the claim without assuming a position for or against the claim.
The therapy session between Rogers and Gloria can be found on youtube by using their names as search criteria. Alternatively, I have attached a video of the complete session to this post.
Set aside roughly 40 minutes to watch the entire session with Gloria. For the purposes of the assignment, students do not need to watch the entire session, but consider setting aside 5 minutes before class to load the follow 8 minute youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m30jsZx_Ngs
See Overview. Adjust to taste.
Students tend to find this exercise very helpful, especially if they are not familiar with writing tight claims. I think the one thing I might consider changing in the future is that I'm going to model the process with multiple students (rather than just one) before letting them loose on each other, as they need a solid feel for the kinds of critical questions the exercise demands.
Because this is a revision activity, I do not assign grades; however, I do ask students to submit their revised claims so that I can compare them with their original claims and make any final comments.