Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter  2003:  Volume 7, Issue 4



Teaching Conflict through Multiple Rhetorical Stances


Nancy L. Chick is an Associate Professor of English at the University of WisconsinBarron County.  Her interests include American literature, women’s studies, and pedagogy.



After September 11, teaching freshman composition classes focused on traditional modes of argument seemed incomplete and socially irresponsible.  While rhetorical persuasion is a valuable skill deeply embedded in American and academic cultures, it is only one stance, and it can limit the way students see the complexities of the world.  Teaching other rhetorical stances, particularly mediation or conflict resolution, in writing classes can complement argumentation while also providing an alternative, more comprehensive way of understanding the world around them.



“I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.”

Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


“If you limit your view of a problem to choosing between two sides,

you inevitably reject much that is true, and you narrow your field of vision

to the limits of those two sides, making it unlikely you’ll pull back,

widen your field of vision, and discover the paradigm shift

that will permit truly new understanding.”

     The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen


One morning in September 2001, I walked into my freshman composition class at the University of Wisconsin--Barron County. One hour beforehand, I had watched live footage of an airplane full of people crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center.  My life, like everyone’s, changed that morning, but at that moment of entering the classroom, my professional life changed as well.  Along with questions about the safety of my family came questions about the significance of what I do every day. What was I doing in my classrooms that actually mattered?  What answers could I possibly offer to my students, and what questions should I raise?  At that moment, I too was quite simply an American, helplessly watching our national idealism and sense of invulnerability being bombed by our own symbols of power and superiority.  What possible importance did how to write an essay have on this day?


In the wake of September 11, I wasn’t alone in my reflections on what and how I teach. I knew that others were wondering what they teach and why.  The more familiar community concerns about a liberal curriculum of controversial books that “have no place” in the classroom, much less on our library shelves, gave way to new concerns about our perhaps more conservative approaches. A writer for our local newspaper noted in her September 26 column that “Educating our children about peace is sorely lacking....  We may be teaching our children in the home that there’s another recourse to hitting their siblings, but we aren’t following it up” in the classrooms (Nimm 4).  She’s right.  While we widely teach some great thinkers who demonstrate “another recourse”--Gandhi, Thoreau, King--often our war-filled histories and, more disturbingly, the skills we teach for future actions do not.  I had not.  While I had included these great thinkers in my courses, I had not translated those lessons into how I teach my “skills class,” freshman composition.  Until September 12.


Half of my teaching load--literature--provides the most eloquent of springboards for discussing war and peace, death and rebirth, fear and hope.  But the other half--composition--can at times feel painfully disconnected from our lives and what’s going on in the world around us.  In fact, the primary type of writing taught in composition across the country sometimes seems antithetical to peaceable communication and probably wouldn’t resolve a fight with a sibling or anyone else.  We focus on rhetoric, the art of effective persuasion, often called “argument.”  We teach this kind of writing to show students how to build strong arguments, for example, by balancing logic, emotions, and common values--Aristotle’s formula--in a successful attempt to convince someone of their point of view.  We also teach rhetoric to arm students with the abilities to see through, protect themselves against, or disprove weak or faulty arguments, such as those found in advertising, politics, peer pressure, everywhere.  Ultimately, we teach rhetoric to empower our students with a skill that is valuable and necessary in our culture.


However, as we recovered from September 11, and as what our president called an “unyielding anger” spread across our nation, I had to rethink this course, the effects of suggesting that argument is the most valuable and necessary communication skill in our culture, and the nature of such empowerment.  Teaching rhetorical argument does not inherently lead to adversarial thinking, but it can.  In The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, Deborah Tannen indicts our educational system for perpetuating what she calls a “culture of critique,” an “argument culture” with dualistic tendencies both to cast all complex issues as simpler debates with a right side and a wrong side, and to try to win arguments at all costs, no matter what we believe (257).  To sense some truth in Tannen’s criticism, I need look no further than my own bookshelves for my multiple volumes of Taking Sides, collections of essays that present--according to their subtitles--Clashing Views on Controversial Subjects, always set up as a question followed by a “yes” essay and a “no” essay.  Within this stance of argument or debate--the “standard way of writing an academic paper” and thus often over-emphasized in our classes--students are focused on being right, winning, and conquering the opposition, no matter what they really think, rather than engaging in “truth seeking,” “integrative thinking,” and an authentic exploration of a topic, open to multiple possibilities (Tannen 268, 260, 273).  Tannen further claims that this intellectual environment has become “a model for behavior” outside of the classroom, setting “the tone for how individuals experience their relationships to other people and to the society we live in” (280).  In this time of war, then, isn’t teaching Tannen’s other mindset--the ability to be “of three minds,” to see “thirteen ways of looking at” an issue--absolutely essential?  Isn’t this the time to take stock and encourage multiple stances when we teach students how to deal with controversial subjects and how to address conflict?  If we haven’t already, should we now empower our students by showing them how to “widen [their] field of vision, and discover the paradigm shift that will permit truly new understanding” (290)?


Tannen traces the “roots of the adversarial approach to knowledge” back to its telling origins: universities in the Middle Ages attended only by men and marked by frequent violence and the pitting of students against “their symbolic enemies,” their teachers (257).  Significantly, in their Latin language, “school” or ludus came from “training exercises for war”; thus, the descendants of these classrooms teach that knowledge is “conceived of as a metaphorical battle” (258-259).  Of course, then, we use the term “critical” for careful, reasoned thought; this antagonistic heritage is suggested in both its denotation and its connotation.  As a result of this privileging of argument and “regard[ing] criticism and attack as the best if not the only type of rigorous thinking,” we have devalued other forms of rigorous thinking and other approaches to issues (257).  Synthesizing--one of the higher levels of thinking in Bloom’s Taxonomy--is often treated as wishy-washy avoidance, the inability to pick a side, “a ‘cop-out’” (Tannen 257). This is certainly the message sent from our leadership during this time of war.  President Bush’s oft repeated proclamation that “you’re either with us or you’re against us” is evidence of the primacy of the dualistic thinking and its accompanying logical fallacies of oversimplification, misrepresentation, and straw men.  The suggestion that those who didn’t support the war were guilty of treason is a now famous example of “the heart of our argument culture” in which we see “issues and ideas as absolute and irreconcilable principles continually at war” (Tannen 284).  Further effects of our argument culture’s thinking--there is one right side, and that side must win--were seen when our government rejected Jesse Jackson’s offer to travel to Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban before we sent our troops to drop bombs.  Our nation had decided that there would be no negotiation because such “giving in” would prove that our country was weak.  War--further violence--was the only possible response to September 11.  Barbara Kingsolver was well aware of this dualistic environment when she stated, “It is not naive to propose alternatives to war,” and then prepared herself:  “I'll get scolded for it, I know. I've already been called every name in the Rush Limbaugh handbook: traitor, sinner, naive, liberal, peacenik, whiner.”  Proposing alternatives, seeing the grey in between the black and white, thinking outside of the binary are traitorous cop-outs that those in the right must prove wrong, without even considering the possible wisdom in such positions.  What kind of message does this send our students?  It reinforces the messages we send when we teach only argument.


What I have realized as my pedagogical response to September 11 is that this dualistic thinking, passed on as the only intelligent way of looking at the world when it is the only stance we teach in our classrooms, both reflects and perpetuates not only an argument culture but a culture of war in personal, academic, professional, and ultimately national and international relationships.  It teaches and confirms the tendency to cast opposing sides as proverbial apples and oranges, so dissimilar that we can’t even discuss them together.  However, as this cliché reveals, what I hope my students begin to recognize more often is that many apparent opposites that seem “absolute and irreconcilable” have plenty in common: both apples and oranges are edible fruits that we sometimes use for juice, they both begin with vowels, they’re both semi-round and about the same size, and they both bear seeds and grow on trees.  So much for the difficulty of comparing apples and oranges.  Such is the logic of teaching only argument, debate, picking sides, disproving the opposition--without an alternative, “another recourse.”


Now more than ever, I’m drawn to the concept of “teaching peace,” as our local columnist discussed.  That day, after the second Tower fell, I began giving serious thought to an alternative rhetorical stance: conflict resolution, mediation, searching for the common ground between what may seem like polar opposites, perhaps even finding an outcome to which opposing sides can agree.  In “Six Steps Toward Conflict Resolution,” William V. Costanzo offers some good beginning guidelines: students should “seek to understand the positions of both sides, to clarify their underlying interests, and to appreciate their immediate and long-range concerns.  At the same time, [students] invent new options that might resolve the disagreement and consider them in the light of objective standards” (9). With these basic steps in mind, I committed to teaching this stance as a valuable method of approaching complex issues, an alternative to effective rhetorical argument. 


As with many composition syllabi, my course schedule was full of references to argument, persuasion, rhetoric.  In fact, three of the six units on my syllabus explicitly pointed to this stance.  Also like many syllabi, mine was the result of much pre-semester frustration: how would I fit in everything?  I had eliminated this, cut that, and conflated those until I came up with a tight schedule that would address all the elements of writing and rhetoric essential to second-semester composition . . . unless we faced school cancellations because of extreme snowfalls.  (I couldn’t imagine any other reason for classes to be canceled.)  Now I had to accommodate the school cancellations on Friday, September 15, as a national day of mourning.  So my already-packed syllabus was in a crunch.  (I had addressed the counterproductive concerns for coverage in my literature courses, admitting that the desire to include “everything,” in fact, led to less learning by the students and a more hectic classroom environment.  Obviously, I hadn’t yet translated that lesson to my composition courses.)  So, four weeks into the semester, I had to figure out how and when to teach an alternative stance to the primary focus of this course. 


I decided, rather than overwhelming my students further in a difficult course during a difficult time, to allow the students to choose their stance for their research papers: conflict resolution or argument.  (The possible topics included the effects of media violence, standardized testing, online education, and restorative justice.)  I introduced conflict resolution by briefly explaining why I was suddenly offering an alternative to argument, my response to the September 11 attacks, and how I felt about what I was teaching.  The next meeting, we practiced it with an article we had recently read on standardized testing.  I asked the students to paraphrase each side in the debate, and we listed the major points on the board, pro-testing on the right, anti-testing on the left.  I then asked the class to determine the motives for each side, considering the background of each perspective and what each wanted for students, teachers, and our educational system.  The students soon found that both sides in this seemingly unresolvable debate wanted the same thing (all students to learn, all schools doing the best they can for all students, and improving schools across the board), a surprise when they were expecting debates to be made up of apples and oranges.  I wrote these common points in the middle of the board and finished by pointing out the Venn diagram we had just made, demonstrating that pairs, even opposites often intersect in some common elements.  The differences, the disagreements often come in how to get to that common motive, so we discussed many alternatives to multiple choice and standardized testing, such as essay exams, exams written by local teachers rather than distant boards, and more, again noting the complexity of such solutions, but at least discovering a common ground, a middle point that bridged the extreme distance in this debate.


Despite my efforts, some of the most explicit evidence of Tannen’s adversarial stance within argument emerged in my classroom that semester.  My students had submitted proposals for their research papers in which they clarified their topic and stance, as well as the beginnings of their research.  One student who chose to argue against standardized testing described her research process as a “journey to assemble armor to fight the injustice” of her opposition’s views.  Despite our in-class discovery of the common ground she shared with what she would call her “enemy,” she clearly felt so strongly about her view that it became a crusade--perhaps not coincidentally shortly after the president used the same word to describe the nation’s campaign against the Taliban.  Another student characterized her opposition’s points as ones she must “refute, discredit, and shoot holes through.”  The redundant insistence on disproving her opposition, combined with the violent imagery, reveals how easy it is for our students to envision argument as total conquest, a take-no-prisoners war with no survivors.  Perhaps what was happening outside of the classroom during those months--the president’s rousing speeches lauded by both Republicans and Democrats, the repetitive televising of the World Trade Center crashes, the recordings of the final phone calls of the now-dead reaching out to loved ones before they died in the Towers or in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, the daily images of our apparently patriotic bombs falling in Afghanistan--was too powerful, and my solitary concerns about more peaceable alternatives to the voice of conquest came at an impossible time for some.


Fewer students than I expected took up the challenge to write a conflict resolution paper.  Before they started writing their papers, almost half of the students said they were planning on writing a conflict resolution essay rather than an argument, but in the end, only about a fourth carried through on this intention.  When they turned in their essays, I asked them to write a note about why they chose their particular stance.  Most who chose argument said they did so because they had strong feelings about the issue, so their stance reflected their authentic position.  Interestingly, a few said they chose argument because it’s “easier” since they only had to deal with one side of the issue, clearly revealing a lack of understanding about effective rhetorical argument in which they must address potential points of opposition to avoid merely preaching to the proverbial choir.  A few wrote arguments because they accurately noted that this is what we focused on in class.  Clearly, I had not offered enough instructional time on the alternative: I gave no model of this kind of essay, and one in-class workshop was not enough for the less confident writers.  One claimed that he had decided not to write an argument, and indeed his essay fit the basic format for conflict resolution, but the “solutions” he offered in the end were ones that clearly revealed a preference and would please only one side; it was, in fact, an argument in sheep’s clothing.  Several noted that they began their research with an argumentative stance but changed to conflict resolution when they saw validity in both sides of their issue or when their research showed that the issue is more complex than figuring out simply who was right and who was wrong.  Yes.  These students were embracing a perspective beyond dualisms, developing “three minds,” undergoing a “paradigm shift.”  These were my successes that semester, though I now work for more.


As our war efforts wax and wane and wax again, I have been working harder to counter some of the faulty assumptions and half-learned lessons that occurred that initial semester and to encourage more authentic arguments and more skills in conflict resolution.  For the semester after my initial attempt, I built into the syllabus an entire unit on seeking common ground, making sure that we apply workshops, model essays, class discussions, and specific instruction to the approach, as I do for argument.  Additionally, for the students who decide that they do, in fact, fall on one side of the issue they research for their mediation essay, I allow them to use the same topic for their argumentative paper.  They will thus be approaching a single issue from multiple perspectives:  first, striving to understand both sides fully, to discover a resolution, to uncover the common motives between rhetorical “enemies”; next, if they authentically prefer one side of the debate, arguing for that position only after such in-depth considerations and arguing its merits while also pointing out the merits of the other side--a much more effective rhetorical approach than the “easier,” less informed, and less persuasive form of argument-as-battle.  Hopefully, this assignment will show the students that issues frequently cast in black and white--Stevens’s blackbird, our wars against terrorism, Iraq, and beyond, etc.--are often much more complicated and open to multiple approaches.  Certainly, I won’t deny that persuasive or argumentative writing is a valuable skill that our students still need to learn, but something has been missing, some “other recourse,” and on the morning of September 11, as I faced 24 shocked faces, I think I found what it is, at least for my classes.


Good teachers don’t teach the exact same syllabus over and over.  While there is continuity in the essential course concepts, we try new techniques, add new readings, rearrange units to change emphasis, and evolve and change with the world around us and the students in front of us.  September 11 was perhaps the day on which we all evolved and changed the most, and I committed myself to moving with the students, to guiding them away from the inevitable call to war in the hopes that a middle ground might one day be more familiar territory and looking for a resolution might be a more common goal in our culture.



Works Cited

Costanzo, William V. “Focus on Conflict Resolution.”  Classroom Notes Plus: A

            Quarterly of Teaching Ideas (August 2001): 7-9.

Kingsolver, Barbara.  “No Glory in Unjust War on the Weak.” Common Dreams

NewsCenter.  Common Dreams.  25 Jan. 2002 <‑01.htm>.

Nimm, Eileen.  “Writer’s Block.”  Rice Lake Chronotype 26 Sept. 2001:  4.

Stevens, Wallace.  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  1931.  Anthology of

 Modern American Poetry.  Ed. Cary Nelson.  New York: Oxford UP, 2000.  127-29.

Tannen, Deborah.  The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue.  New York: Random House, 1998.