Rhetoric and Service Learning in Addressing the Challenges of Diversity

By Sarah O’Connor.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In a shocking 2007 study, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, a lifelong proponent of diversity, found that in neighborhoods with the greatest diversity, there was the least civic engagement, the most mistrust and division.
Putnam’s study sums up the problems people experience in facing the “other.” As Putnam’s study shows, it is not enough to simply put people of different backgrounds in proximity of one another, whether in neighborhoods or on college campuses. What can we as teachers do? A lot, we believe, especially if what we are teaching is rhetoric and composition. For one, we can teach the value of civil discourse. For diversity to be anything other than Balkanization, it is essential that people have the very skills that rhetoric teaches: critical thinking; dialogue; listening; appreciation for, if not agreement with, opinions different from one’s own.
Along with teaching these skills, we can give students opportunities to put these skills to work in the real world. One excellent way to do this is through service learning. This gets students out of the classroom and into the local community where they will often experience a kind of diversity they do not find on campus.
Finally, writing…when we ask students to write, we are really inviting them to take a much bigger step. As Wallace Stegner said, “Writing is a social act, an act of communication both intellectual and emotional. It is also, at its best, an act of affirmation – a way of joining the human race and a human culture. And that means a writer must have a clear conception not only of the self, but of the society.” Writing assignments used in conjunction with class discussion can help students process their experiences in the community and achieve new understandings of both themselves and society.

Keywords: Community, Service Learning, Diversity, Teacher, Composition

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 5, pp.43-50. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.134MB).

Prof. Sarah O’Connor

Associate Professor, School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA

Sarah O’Connor is an associate professor in The School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. She earned her BA at Brandeis University and her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She taught in the English Department at JMU from 1990-1994, then became the director of publications and editor of the college magazine at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA. In 2001, she returned to JMU to teach in The Writing Program.

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