As students and scholars of rhetoric, we understand that others’ conceptions of what is good or true are influenced by their beliefs and values. But how can we apply this understanding? How can we use our rhetorical knowledge to more effectively traverse difficult conversations, like those happening on our campus and in our city during this contentious election season?
In a talk sponsored by the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse, given on Friday, October 7, Professor Krista Ratcliffe of Purdue suggested rhetorical listening as a teachable tactic to help students—and everyone—learn how to listen to and participate in conversations across difference.
Rhetorical listening, argued Ratcliffe in her talk, promotes our capacity to look “beyond our own sense of what’s going on.” To truly grasp what a person says, we must consider not only the words that they’ve spoken, but the cultures, values, attitudes, and actions that shape our understanding of these words. Ratcliffe offered a way to consider this variation by discussing words as tropes. Our conversations are complicated by tropes, especially those related to race, gender, religion, and other identity markers. And tropes contribute to the gap between a speaker’s intent and the effect of their words: when we don’t account for a word’s associated beliefs, its effect in conversation will likely not align with the intent.
One answer to this problem is to practice rhetorical listening. As a teacher-rhetorician, Ratcliffe deftly unpacked the steps involved in rhetorical listening, engaging her audience along the way. She used the example of Black Lives Matter, showing how the word “race” operates as a trope and how different attitudes toward the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and its associated movement are consistent within different cultural logics.
Ratcliffe encouraged the audience at her talk to use rhetorical listening to “figure out how we’re socialized to think and act via language” and to apply this knowledge to our pedagogies, classroom discussions, and our engagement with others. We can do this by keeping in mind a key takeaway: if we learn strategies for listening, much as we learn strategies for writing, we should be able to more easily navigate conversations with people who don’t share our views.
As WRD’s first contribution to the President’s Speaker Series on Race and Free Speech, Krista Ratcliffe was wonderful. She gave an accessible talk to a packed room, answered audience questions for nearly forty minutes, and gave the teachers, students, and other members of the DePaul community an accessible method for the very complex task of listening to, and ideally speaking with, those people with whom we might initially disagree.