As we near mid-terms and the piles of essays begin to litter my desk, I sometimes wonder about the purpose of teaching writing. What do students learn in a first-year composition class? Do the skills they practice serve them for the rest of their college careers and lives? Does knowing the difference between a fragment, a run-on, and a complete sentence really matter?
Then again, are writing skills all that matter? Rhetorician James A. Berlin argues that rhetoric is inherently social. To teach students rhetoric and writing is to teach them how to be better citizens. By understanding how persuasion works, students may think more critically about the messages they receive from politicians and other social leaders. Understanding how rhetoric works may help students discern the difference between balanced reporting and the media spin machine. As one of my favorite professors in college said, “My job is not to provide answers, but to show you how to ask good questions.”
Now, when so much of civic engagement includes digital environments, the need to think critically about written messages is very important. Something as simple as deciding what deserves our attention can be a complex rhetorical act. Learning to find the major claim and then understanding the assumptions behind that claim are essential for true civitas. Voting is meaningless without knowledge. Serving on a jury is pointless without a sense of justice.
So, what’s the point? To teach students how to write good questions, to interrogate everything, to distrust the authorities – especially their professors.