Staging the Exchange: Learning to Read and Write Beyond Similarity and Opposition

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, Rhetoric

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

Rhetoric R1A is the writing-focused, first half of Berkeley’s Reading & Composition requirement. Having now taught multiple R&C courses, I believe strongly that the only way to develop students’ writing skills is to teach them how to read like writers: to train them in techniques of close, active reading and evidence-based textual interpretation. Over the course of my R1A, we encounter a variety of literary texts, including poems, stories, excerpts of plays, and a novel, as well as works of social and cultural criticism. In the first half of the semester, I assign short writing exercises in which students closely analyze individual texts. Then, for their final papers, I ask them to bring two texts into a critical conversation around the given theme of the course. In Spring 2013, that theme was “Identity, Space, and Memory.”

The Problem: I have found that when students are asked to write an essay that deals with more than one primary text, their tendency is to simply compare and contrast the works, to either illustrate the ways in which the texts make equivalent arguments, or to pit one text/author against the other in a relation of pure opposition. Although I emphasize throughout the semester the many possible relations that text a and text b may have to each other beyond similarity and opposition (including relations of complementarity, supplementarity, revision, and derivation), students often struggle with this final paper assignment. If Zadie Smith believes in the possibility of linguistic hybridity, they reason, then surely Sujata Bhatt must be saying the opposite, that linguistic mixing is loss. This kind of thinking leads to papers that are limited in analytical scope. It also produces sustained misreading, as students try to bend the text in question into taking a particular stance that fits the poles they have established.

The Solution: After encountering this problem with multiple students — even those whose class participation revealed a nuanced understanding of the texts — I realized that I needed to do more to teach students what it means to bring two texts “into conversation.” I devised a three-part assignment called “Staging the Exchange.” First, we staged a conversation in class around the primary course theme (language and identity), with different students speaking from the positions of different authors. The point was not just to represent each perspective with fidelity, but rather to hone an open spirit of interlocution, so that the perspectives could cross-pollinate and illuminate each other. We then reflected as a group on the conversation we had just had, foregrounding 1) the difference between a conversation and a debate; 2) the challenge of arriving at points of convergence between texts written in different historical contexts, across genres, and with different intended audiences. Finally, students were asked to literally write a dialogue between two texts and their authors. “Imagine,” the assignment began, “that one of these authors poses a question to the other about a theme, an image, a rhetorical device, a recurring pattern, a conflict, or a contradiction in the text, and that the other responds x and perhaps poses a question in return.”

The Assessment: Students responded enthusiastically to “Staging the Exchange” and I was gratified to see that they had internalized the key distinction between a dialogue and a debate. Now, instead of the texts affirming or negating each other, students produced sophisticated scenes of relation between given authors. For example, one student wrote a conversation between Ernest Renan (“What is a Nation?”) and Gloria Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera) on the subject of national belonging. The conversation sketched the shared terrain of the authors’ thinking (both uphold nationality as a “soul”) and illuminated key divergences (Renan doesn’t think language forces people to unite, while Anzaldúa recognizes the force of linguistic imperialism). Most importantly, the student emphasized what the authors were only able to realize by “talking to one another”: Although national belonging transcends the boundaries of language and race (Renan), the nation nevertheless excludes and alienates subjects on the grounds of language and race (Anzaldúa). This student’s success was not unique. By “staging the exchange,” the class had learned how to bring two texts into conversation beyond relations of similarity and opposition.