First-Year Writing, Dualist Thinking, and the Open Conversation:
Dusting off Carl Rogers’ Place in Rhetorical Studies
The year 1991 was important for composition teachers for two seemingly unrelated yet significant reasons. First, it marked the twenty-year anniversary of Young, Becker, and Pike’s introduction of Carl Rogers’ communication theories to rhetoric in their text Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Marking this anniversary and the increasing criticism against this application, Doug Brent noted that “even the persistent need to denounce Rogerian rhetoric every few years testifies to its attractiveness” (“Young” 462). Shortly after this, however, the “persistent need” apparently disappeared as articles dealing with Rogerian rhetoric virtually vanished from College Composition and Communication, The Rhetoric Review, and the other forums of the composition community. The timing of this shift is particularly interesting, for although the field moved on to other discussions, one of the critical problems that Rogerian rhetoric was intended to address—the ability (or inability) of first-year writers to think openly about alternative points of view—was moving into even greater prominence. In the same year, Bette Erickson and Diane Strommer published Teaching College Freshmen, a text which, among other difficulties common to freshmen students, highlighted the tendency of first- year students to think in dualist rather than in multiple or relativist terms. Their work was influenced by the models proposed by William Perry and Mary Belenky and others, and has been highly influential in educational scholarship, sponsoring further study by scholars such as Richard Paul, Kirk Kidwell, and Linda Elder.
The time frame of the publication of Teaching College Freshmen and the phasing out of Rogerian rhetoric may well be pure coincidence, but it is a coincidence that is worth paying attention to. Is it possible that a theory of rhetoric focused almost wholly on understanding the Other may give us insight into this problem of dualist thinking that our first-year writing students must confront? I would argue, yes, but perhaps not in the same terms that we are used to discussing, where Rogerian rhetoric is as an alternative to Aristotelian rhetorical strategies. I suggest that using Carl Rogers’ theory of communication as a teaching technique rather than an espoused form of rhetoric may help our students better grasp the concepts of traditional rhetoric.
Students entering the university for the first time have more to adjust to than the vagaries of dorm life, the increased size of campus, and the shock to the nervous system brought on by eating pizza while watching YouTube at 3:00 a.m. The struggle that first- year students experience academically as they attempt to engage in rhetoric is not a matter of an abnormally small brain capacity that will gradually increase with their time in college. Rather, it is a struggle to adapt that capacity to think in the way we ask them to, which often is much different than how they learned to think in high school. Kirk Kidwell writes that “the difficulty they encounter arises from the workload that each course expects of them—what students learn—as well as a transformation in the students’ styles of learning—how they learn. . . . In this (the second aspect), the high- school experience seems to be more a part of the problem than the solution” (254). Students will acclimate to the quantity of the workload easily enough, and that is probably not an area of concern for us. However, the challenges that students experience based on how they learn, especially when it conflicts so directly with the methodology they have learned in their previous formal schooling, should be important for us to understand.
So what exactly is the problem with how freshmen think, and does this translate into difficulties in learning the way we feel they should learn? As a result of their previous schooling experience, most pre-college students view education as a process by which they learn one set of universally true answers. Erickson and Strommer explain, “They view professors as authorities who know these truths, and believe that teaching constitutes explaining them to students. Learning means taking notes on what the authorities say, committing them to memory, and feeding them back as answers on tests” (48). This is the challenge that we face when we attempt to teach students how to “critically think.” We are so far removed from the high school experience that we may easily forget what a foreign concept something as simple as writing and defending their own opinion can be for some of our students.
Erickson and Strommer’s studies reveal that “our challenges to them to think are interpreted very differently than we intend. To them, thinking appears to be an academic game in which we ‘answer questions with questions’ or ask them to guess ‘the meaning of a poem.’ Whatever thinking is, it is not learning, and they tolerate the diversion only so long” (49). It is therefore not only important that we teach our students how to think critically; we must help them realize that they are gaining essential skills and not just participating in a diversion from the truths they are supposed to be learning. Hopefully, by the end of their first year at the university, students will have successfully made the transition from dualist thinking into multiplicity or relativism (Kidwell 254), or the frame of mind in which multiple viewpoints can be understood and tolerated.
The very nature of our courses and the intimacy of our class size and discussion suggest that our classroom is one of the primary tools for helping students in this regard. Because of this advantage, we have as great an opportunity, and as great a responsibility, as any instructor in any university department to cultivate critical thinking. Any instruction in critical reading and argumentative writing will help students progress in their ability to think critically. Curricula have taken on additional components in the last twenty years to emphasize this point even more.
Rogers’ Theory in the Classroom
A number of ideas to help students learn to see outside their own perspective have circulated in the academic sphere of rhetorical studies. These include multiculturalism, feminism, the “argumentative, multiple-source paper” (Slattery 362), and approaches to composition centered around political, economic, and sociological issues such as those advocated by James Berlin, Patricia Bizzell, and Charles Paine. The merits of these approaches have been discussed at length by these authors as well as by Maxine Hairston, C.H. Knoblauch, Dale Bauer, David Bleich, and many others. It is not my intention to attempt to recap that conversation. I do, however, want to show that rhetoricians are attempting to deal with the problem of first-year dualist thinking through their pedagogical approaches. I further wish to explore the idea that applying Rogerian principles as teaching pedagogy rather than rhetorical style can help us teach our students more effectively to overcome dualist thinking.
Ironically, some of the statements that motivate me most in this direction come from rhetoricians seeking to disprove Young, Becker, and Pike’s interpretation of Rogers’ theory as a viable alternative to traditional or Aristotelian rhetoric. For example, while Bill Karis acknowledges that Rogers’ ideas may work very well in therapy, they do “not seem to fit well into a task-oriented, collaborative writing project” (119). If Karis is correct—and the disappearance of Rogerian rhetoric from the conversation of composition would indicate that his point is valid—he still alludes to a role in which we can apply Rogers’ ideas: therapy. Teachers, after all, do have a somewhat therapeutic role, and it may be that teaching students these clinical skills is more effective than having students write like Young, Becker, and Pike suggest. By claiming that we have a “therapeutic role” as first-year writing instructors, I am not implying that we need to help our students analyze their love lives or problems at home. The nature of our writing consultations and the one-on-one instruction we hope to foster, however, suggests by its very nature an individualized and therapeutic role as opposed to a lecture-only model. Paul Bator’s description of his adaptation of Rogerian principles—a “recursive, ‘audience-based’ model . . . adapting and extending the tagmemic heuristic as a direct method for improving a writer’s awareness of her audience’” (87)—is an example of how to implement Rogers’ theory in our teaching.
In arguing against Young, Becker, and Pike’s Rogerian model, Lisa Ede claims that any method that truly follows Rogers’ principles must “internalize and manifest” three conditions: “congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathetic understanding. . . . It may not be impossible to apply written Rogers’ principles in written argument, but it certainly represents a difficult task, one which I believe has yet to be successfully completed” (46). Again, while this is probably difficult to do in writing, the three goals Ede identifies should be desired traits that we seek to cultivate as instructors. Should we not, after all, have “unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding” as we seek to help students learn? Even those who endorse Rogerian rhetoric agree that “in this ‘pure’ form, Rogerian therapy is not ‘argument.’ Rogerian therapy is antiargument, a form of discourse in which the speaker must specifically avoid stating a point of view either directly or indirectly” (Brent, “Rogerian” 299).
This approach, based on understanding and empathy, can enhance the teaching of the other strategies previously mentioned. Andrea Lunsford notes that, for Aristotle, “argument ordinarily begins not at the point of breakdown in communication or of ignorance of the facts, but at the point of possible communication and with a full knowledge of the facts” (148). How many of our first-year writers are at this point? The struggles that we encounter often derive from dualist thinking that is generally incompatible with the necessary background knowledge and sense of goodwill necessary for Aristotelian argument. As valid as multiculturalism or feminism are, such approaches are bound to be nearly impossible to teach if students are hostile to any viewpoint that they did not learn at home or in high school. In my own experience, I have found that many of my students (who generally lean towards the right side of the political spectrum) find it difficult to acknowledge the validity of the position of the Democratic Party, the environmentalists, or anyone opposed to country music. Whether or not my students become Democrats as a result of our class discussion is immaterial to me. I do, however, hope that one outcome of my teaching will be that they can at least acknowledge that another voice of credibility exists.
Possibilities for Application
One method for putting Rogerian principles into class practice is to have students practice articulating opposing viewpoints that they disagree with out loud in a manner that is satisfactory to the other party. This gives students the opportunity to learn “to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about” (Rogers 107). Ideally, this should be done with students who hold opposing viewpoints. These students can then confirm that the arguing student has successfully stated her viewpoint in a manner that truly portrays her “frame of reference.” It is likely that, just as aggravated partners sometimes try to use this exercise to manipulate their partner’s argument in marriage, students may be tempted to frame the opposing viewpoint in a negative light. This exercise may very well take repeated practice and demonstration to sink in, but once it does, the process should greatly help our students’ see validity in the other point of view.
One variation on this that I have attempted and do not recommend is the inverted class debate, in which students are forced to argue the opposite point than that with which they agree. I mentioned country music earlier as a possible topic in which students would have very fixed notions of right and wrong. In one particular classroom, most of my students were big fans of country music, and much of the pre-class chatter revolved around Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and the Dixie Chicks. I noticed that a few students (including the only two men in the class and a young woman who regularly wore a Pink Floyd sweatshirt) regularly abstained from this conversation, indicating their apathy and/ or antagonism towards the subject. When it was time for our unit on counterargument, I asked the class how they felt about country music. Those who liked it moved to one side of the classroom, and those who did not care for it or were neutral towards it went to the other. I then gave them the prompt for their debate that they were to argue whether or not country music should be banned from our campus, but I had them argue the opposite viewpoint from the one that they espoused.
The results were decidedly mixed. The students who were a little bit further along in their ability to think outside of dualist terms were able to do just fine. There were others, however, who struggled greatly with this assignment. One student complained, “I just can’t understand why anyone would want to ban country music!” In response, another student on the other side of the room (coincidentally, the one wearing a Pink Floyd sweatshirt) was quite happy to offer several reasons to ban country music, and it took some time to restore the class to the side of the debate they were supposed to argue. While the groups were eventually able to assert their respective sides, it was grudging, and I realized that not very much real thought had gone into the actual merits of the other point of view. What I should have done instead was to practice Rogerian therapy. One of the students in favor of country music should have (with ample time for preparation) given her reasons for liking country music and explained why it should be allowed on our campus. An opposing student should then have restated the reasons in a way which the first student found acceptable.
This semester I tried using the classic “fishbowl” technique with a Rogerian twist. The students were debating a topic that most of them felt passionate about, and there was sufficient diversity of opinion to promote a healthy discussion. Before I confined myself to silence on the periphery of the discussion and let my students carry on, I briefly taught them about restating according to the principles discussed in this paper. It took most of the students a few attempts to restate the argument in terms that the other party found acceptable, but by the end of the class period they had figured it out.
Another possibility outside of oral communication is to have students use Rogerian strategy in their writing. John C. Bean endorses his practice of summary writing on a Rogerian model. He states that “in summarizing another person’s ideas, the student must temporarily abandon his or her own perspective to assume what is often an unfamiliar point of view” (344). This “can help initiate dialectic thinking by urging students away from egocentric vision . . . [and] students learn to build bridges toward other people and to acknowledge viewpoints different from their own” (346). While I would probably not structure my entire class and all writing assignments around the Rogerian model as Bean suggests, there is something valuable to be learned from his experience. Short writing exercises where students positively recapture or rearticulate views that they do not endorse can help accomplish this purpose. For our purposes, having students write on articles from the Opposing Viewpoints with which they disagree (perhaps including topics such as “Christians should support abortion rights”) may be worth considering. They also can serve as valuable prewriting materials for students on longer papers, even (and perhaps especially) if they ultimately are used to help the student better defend his or her own viewpoint.
In explaining the principles that started this whole conversation, Carl Rogers claimed that “the major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person, or the other group” (106). This tendency is played out regularly in our classrooms and, in all honesty, probably in our own offices as well. In suggesting a reexamination of Carl Rogers’ role in rhetorical studies I realize that I have probably opened up a proverbial can of worms. There are still plenty of problems with applied Rogerian theory, and I do not claim to refute those. What I am suggesting, however, is that we consider how taking Rogers’ principles of communication into our teaching pedagogy will impact our students’ ability to think critically and, by so doing, change the way they approach written argument.
Bator, Paul. “A Comment on ‘Young, Becker, and Pike’s ‘Rogerian’ Rhetoric: A Twenty-Year Reassessment.’” College English 54.1 (1992): 85-87.
Barnett, Timothy, ed. Teaching Argument in the Composition Course. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
Bean, John C. “Summary Writing, Rogerian Listening, and Dialectic Thinking.” College Composition and Communication 37.3 (1986): 343-46.
Brent, Doug. “Rogerian Rhetoric: Ethical Growth through Alternative Forms of Argumentation.” Barnett 297-317.
—. “Young, Becker, and Pike’s ‘Rogerian’ Rhetoric: A Twenty-Year Reassessment.” College English 53.4 (1991): 452-66.
Ede, Lisa. “Is Rogerian Rhetoric Really Rogerian?” Rhetoric Review 3.1 (1984): 40-48.
Erickson, Bette LaSere and Diane Weltner Strommer. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991.
Karis, Bill. “Conflict in Collaboration: A Burkean Perspective.” Rhetoric Review 8.1 (1989): 113-26.
Kidwell, Kirk S. “Understanding the College First-Year Experience.” Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 78.6 (2005): 253-55.
Lunsford, Andrea A. “Aristotelian vs. Rogerian Argument: A Reassessment.” College Composition and Communication 30.2 (1979). 146-51.
Rogers, Carl. “Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation.” Barnett 105-11.
Slattery, Patrick J. “The Argumentative, Multiple-Source Paper: College Students Reading, Thinking, and Writing about Divergent Points of View.” Barnett 361-76.