Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On being the Rhetorical (Other) Woman

Sometimes, when people ask me what I study, I want to answer: Temptation. It is the reason, after all, that folks are so suspicious of rhetoric, right? I mean---who knows what dangers may lie behind those seductive turns of phrase, those alluring figures and forms? Luckily, it turns out, there are some people out there willing to investigate (with kindness and generosity) the slippery places between credibility, sincerity, irruptions, and success.

That being said, I was brought right up against the contemporary force of these historical suspicions at the beginning of this week. A student of mine, bright and sharp, is currently considering graduate school. He has never considered himself, in his own words, a reader or a student. And yet... he is fascinated by the life of the mind--presented and performed as it is by me and my two newbie colleagues here at school. He sits in our offices, chats with us about concerns, asks really difficult questions. All in all, he is a delight.

He is also a native New Yorker.

There is a surprising provinciality in the minds of many native New Yorkers. Often, the desire/belief in these minds is that they never have to leave this place to live a full, good life. They want to stay close to home and family--much, to my surprise, like people I have met in less urban places. But being born in NYC does not make you cosmopolitan, and I am constantly reminded of this.

So, my colleagues and I are talking to this young man about his options for grad school... mostly options that are elsewhere, considering his interests and the perspicacity with which he views the academic world. For a variety of reasons, he does not want to leave the city.

Anyway, over the course of our conversation earlier this week, he mentioned to me that another colleague (native Long Islander, former student of the school at which we both teach, pursuing a PhD at Fordham--in the city) had pulled him aside and said, "Now, I know james can be persuasive, but you need to make these decisions based on your own heart/needs/mind/conscience." --or something like that...

I was surprised and a bit dismayed by this sort of sneaky and, um, secretive exchange. And then my student went on to say, "Well, you know, you are quite a temptress."

And I was floored. Silent--which, dear reader, you must know is a fairly rare thing for me to be.

I am a rhetorician, and rhetoricians study temptation. In the practice of teaching/learning temptation, we get accused of various sins: only teaching method without ethics, only providing tools without ramifications, only offering reasons without reasoning.

We are Helen, leading the poor, poor Paris and the angry, mistreated Menelaus into distance, doom, and damnation.

And, apparently, grad school.

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