David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

What Trump Could Learn From My First-Year Rhetoric Course

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It’s clear, despite the objections of two “senior administration officials,” that the recent executive order on immigration signed by President Trump has been a disaster, both substantively and politically. Confusion reigned at our country’s border crossings and airports as officials did not know how the directive applied to various travelers. Spontaneous protests sprang up all over the country, demanding that refugees and immigrants on valid visas be released from detention and allowed to enter the country. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (to some extent — one side was mostly silent) voiced their opposition.

I often write in this space about the importance of skills in the college classroom. Although course content is surely necessary, teaching that content through the practice of important (and repeatable) academic skills is the best way to get students to retain what they’ve learned. Students in my rhetoric course at the University of Iowa (mostly in their first year), focus on crucial skills — critical reading, writing, public speaking — that I hope will be useful to them throughout their lives.

Recent political events have got me thinking about the benefits of mastering those skills, particularly for those in positions of power. Could the chaos created by this immigration order have been avoided if Trump had taken rhetoric? Let’s take a look at some of the skills from which the president could have benefitted.

Drafting and revision. In my class, we spend a lot of time on the writing process. No piece of excellent writing emerges fully formed. The signal difference between writing and speaking is that, when we write, we can revise. Our expectations for clarity, originality, rhetorical force, and artfulness are all higher for the written word. We expect that writers have had time to perfect what they’ve written. Through drafting, and the attendant revision process, we figure out what we want to say, and how we should say it. In particular, revision helps us refine and make more precise our meaning, a process often impossible to do without writing a number of drafts.

It’s fair to say that this executive order could have used some revision. In particular, the language that governs whether green-card holders — permanent U.S. residents — are subject to the travel ban is carelessly vague. Although focused on protecting the nation from foreign terrorists, the executive order uses the broad term “aliens” to refer to those prohibited from entering the country for 90 days. Legally, that term encompasses all noncitizens, even those already vetted and approved for long-term and permanent visas.

The fallout from publishing what seems like an early draft was swift and severe, and the administration scrambled on Sunday to clarify that green-card holders would not be banned from entry. This is why it’s important to give yourself time to work on a piece of writing; expecting to get it right the first time is usually foolish.

Research skills. Also important in the rhetoric classroom are the skills that allow students to explore issues in great depth and then write or speak about them well. I work with students to help them gain information literacy, understand the difference between reliable and unreliable sources, and develop strategies for synthesizing a great deal of information into the background of an essay or speech.

Writing, I tell my students (following Kenneth Burke), is like entering into an ongoing conversation — one that started long before you arrived and will continue long after you leave. It’s important to first orient yourself, figure out what has already been said about your topic, before you add to the conversation.

Again, it seems that members of the Trump administration failed to fully master that skill before embarking on the writing process. If they had learned how to conduct research properly, perhaps they would have discovered that U.S. law specifically states that no person can be “discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” Such errors are easily avoidable if you begin the research process by reading widely in the previous literature. As a result of this negligence, the order will likely be mired in court battles for some time.

Similarly, I would think that the first step in researching a plan to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the United States would be to find out where terrorists have come from in the past. Unfortunately, the executive order seems to have missed completely the countries from which the vast majority of terror-related actors originate. Research skills may seem basic to some readers, but they really are quite useful.

Reading widely. Another crucial aspect of the rhetoric classroom is that students read widely, exposing themselves to a variety of perspectives on important issues. I want my students to be able to see all sides of important issues, and to appreciate that citizenship involves tolerance of other people and their views.

In my class, many of my readings center on issues relating to feminism. Most of my students come to class with limited or mistaken ideas about feminism — these readings are often eye-opening. They get to practice critically discussing difficult issues by engaging with voices they otherwise might not hear. Through reading a variety of writers, and through class discussion of these readings, students get a better sense of their place within a diverse society, and can better understand the world around them.

By practicing the act of reading widely and discussing those readings with a diverse group of people, perhaps Trump and his advisers could have avoided some of the errors of the past week. Perhaps they would have learned of the many contributions refugees have made to our country. Maybe they would have understood how crucial a role immigrants play in our nation’s scientific community. Or perhaps they would have comprehended just how desperately refugees need a safe haven, and what role the U.S. has played in creating the dangers from which refugees now flee. When we read, we open ourselves up to another’s experience, and we widen our own. It allows us to see and understand a bigger piece of the world’s complexity. That’s pretty important, especially if you’re making policy that affects millions of people.

That’s just it though, isn’t it: It’s not just Trump who would benefit if he and members of his administration took a rhetoric course. We all would.

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