I want to talk about DeWitt Jones. My teacher. My M.A. advisor. My boss for forever.
Now, I don’t know if Dr. Jones reads blogs. And I don’t want to embarrass him if he does. But I do need to gush a little. Not much. Just enough.
DeWitt Jones taught me how fun it is to read speeches by powerful dead white guys. And women. And live ones. And black ones too. He just liked civic discourse. He liked to watch how it changed stuff.
He literally had a spring in his step the entire Reagan administration. Not because he voted for him (although he did). But because Reagan made it cool to teach speech again. Teaching Carter was such a drag with the sweaters and the fireplaces. ::yawn:: And the Malaise.
He told me that it would be good for me to study the early feminists even when some people violently scowled at the choice.
Now, DeWitt is no raving leftist in the politics department. Yes, he likes his NPR as much as the next academic. But Dr. Jones went to Louisiana to study American Public Address. He is Old School. Neo-Aristotelian. He got it hard core when studying dead white guys’ words wasn’t about the words at all. When context was king. Before all that new-fangled New Criticism messed us up (I say that good-naturedly since my academic path veered a different and “newer” direction after my M.A. with Dr. Jones).
And he distrusts political engagement. When our academic association (NCA) supported the ERA, he disengaged. He revoked his membership and never returned. His decision wouldn’t have been mine, but I understand it and respect it. He was consistent in his protests.
And he loves FDR! But hates his policies.
Did you catch that? DeWitt Jones — that most Platonist of thinkers and most Aristotelian of critics and most sectarian of Christians and most conservative of ideologues — has enough generosity of spirit and mind to love a good speech when he hears it and still shudder at the ideology behind it.
That’s what you call a good egg.
I used to do an exercise in Freshman Speech when we’d talk about audience adaptation. I’d have a list of 5 speakers and 5 situations, and we’d imagine what would happen if . . . say, Oprah Winfrey spoke to a Kindergarten class. How would she adapt? What might she talk about? How would she speak differently than if she were talking to this college class?
The discussion was always profitable at BJU . . . until Bill Clinton became president. When I’d ask them what Bill Clinton would say if he came to talk to “this class,” they were stymied. They couldn’t fathom what this politician they detested could ever say to them.
I’m no Clinton fan, but I still find that odd. Are the boundaries between us that impermeable? Is there nothing that our political opponent could say to us as Americans that is of any value? Is being President that irrelevant?
And it doesn’t matter what the Democrats did or would do when G.W. Bush was president. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Every good fundamentalist knows that.
So it’s in the spirit of DeWitt Jones’ loving-the-speech-but hating-the-ideology 😉 that I’m going to offer some of my own discussion questions for Obama’s speech this Tuesday. The ed.gov‘s suggested discussion questions are lame, and others I’ve seen . . . well, they simply miss the mark. If I were conducting a college discussion, before viewing the speech I’d ask my students:
- What have you heard about this speech?
- Why do you think people find this controversial?
- What are the consequences of that controversy? Where would that leave political discourse and the civic sphere if we followed the trajectory of that controversy?
After the speech, I’d ask:
- What are your initial thoughts?
- What are his arguments? How does he support those arguments?
- How does he make those arguments “stick”?
- What cultural archetypes, assumptions, and themes does he build on?
- How does his character, knowledge, and judgment command (or not) respect?
- What is the President’s “second persona“? That is, what kind of person or student does he assume you — the implied auditor — to be? How do you judge that person? How do his words encourage you to be (or not) that person?
- Was he convincing? Why or why not?
- Who’s the actor in the President’s speech? And the act? The scene? The purpose of the action? The agency? Which of those did the President emphasize and was does that say about his overall view of the world?
- What grade would you give the President? Why? If you were his speech teacher, what advice would you give him for next time?
- How did your expectations match or conflict with your actual impressions of the speech? What does that say about media coverage and its influence on civic discourse?
We’ll be watching the speech at home whether or not my son’s teacher decides to show it in school. It’s fine if she doesn’t; I really do understand. And my questions for him, to be honest, will be taken from those above. Why shouldn’t they be?
It’s not about politics per se. It’s about judgment. And there’s a long history in rhetorical scholarship about how to judge. Ancient rhetoric, after all, was simply the study of wisdom. And it’s when we’re exposed to those with whom we might disagree — those who are not-us (which includes everyone) — that we learn how to be wise.