Reading, Writing, Voting: A Rhetorical Education

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A recent discussion of the Writing Program Administrators listserv asks the questions,How many of us have asked students their voter registration status?” Respondents submitted practices based on their varying perspectives and teaching locations. Some respondents offer their students extra credit opportunities to register to vote. Others bring registration forms to class or show voter registration websites. Additional respondents believed that offering extra credit was coercive, while others stated that extra credit for registering to vote would not be equitably available to all students because of immigration status or status in the criminal justice system, and still others suggested alternative extra credit options, noting that voter education plays a vital role in rhetorical education.


Here is my experience. Many years ago, in the months leading up to a presidential primary, I brought to class a stack of voter registration forms procured from a table in the lobby of our classroom building. I presented the cards in what felt like a neutral, non-partisan manner, discussing the history of voting rights, the importance of voting no matter one’s political affiliation, and so on.


My students listened patiently. A few students politely pocketed the cards. But by far, the majority of students in the class said:

“Dr. Bernstein, I am not a US citizen.”


In that moment, I experienced a sense of humility that I have carried with me to this day. That moment is held with other sacred memories of voting-- and not voting: accompanying my mother into the voting booth as a preschooler and watching her flip the little levers of the old-fashioned voting machine; registering to vote for the first time at eighteen; voting for president for the first time absentee as a first-year college student far from home (and watching the debates for that election on television at night in the student union).


Yet the memory of my students, disenfranchised even as they paid taxes, troubles me still. As recently as 2016, some of us in the county where I was living-- myself and my colleagues included-- were denied the right to vote in the presidential primary because our voter registrations were misfiled as “independent,” rather than with a specific political party needed to vote in that state’s closed primary system. At the same time, in that same county, other citizens found themselves waiting to vote for many hours. The county government had drastically reduced the number of polling places. Poor communities of color were especially hard hit with the reduction of polling places.


All of these experiences have helped me to consider the necessity, and the difficulty, of addressing the intersections of political and rhetorical education in the classroom. Given the speed with which events cycle in and out of the news, my inclination is to return to my training in close reading gleaned from rhetorical history and comparative literature, and to share practices of textual explication with students. We first apply these practices to Civil Rights Movement readings, and texts that are densely packed, such as speeches by James Baldwin, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then I invite students to apply those same practices of persuasion and analysis to their own writing.


Currently in my classes, students are nearing the completion of their first writing projects, a culmination of a series of assignments that have unfolded over the last six weeks. The process looks something like this:


Reading: Read not only for main idea and supporting evidence, but also at the sentence level and for word choice and repetition.


Writing: Write the body paragraphs first, and summarize the text, not only in terms of thesis and support, but again, for how the text is constructed, and the role of construction in effective persuasion of the reader.


Revising: Divide long paragraphs into shorter ones, and make sure that each new paragraph has an introductory and concluding sentence to help with transitions between them, adding additional citations from the text as needed for evidence.


Reframing: Add an introduction that dives directly into the main idea of your own essay. Offer a conclusion that presents the main idea as powerfully as possible, so that the reader is persuaded to accept, or at least to consider, the significance of the main idea.


These steps then become the grading criteria for the essay.


In fast-paced times, this work can feel slow, difficult, and painstaking. Yet the aim of this work is that students will learn not only to analyze dense material through reading and writing, but also that, through reading and writing, they will learn to explore the possibilities of imagining in challenging historical moments, with Baldwin or King and others a more hopeful and productive future.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.