Last year, I collaborated with two composition colleagues to construct a collaborative research assignment based on Justice Talking, National Public Radio’s award-winning weekly show. This collaboration grew out of a Difficult Dialogues grant by the Ford Foundation that was awarded to campuses across the nation in an effort to promote pluralism and academic freedom. Our campus program was titled Engaging Controversy. We selected the Justice Talking format because it invites students to engage in respectful discussion and debate over controversial policy issues in the public sphere. More importantly, the format situates that controversy in particular times, places, and communities, surrounding agonistic debate with a spectrum of voices. Together, we conceptually designed the project both to engage students in controversy and to teach them the principles of rhetoric valued in our discipline. Individually, we implemented the project in very different ways to achieve specific course goals. For this reason, my case study of the public science writing classroom is far more developed and includes media examples, while the case studies of my colleagues are included to provide a sense of how flexible the form can be.
For those unfamiliar with the format, each Justice Talking show explores a single issue using a mix of discrete pieces that include anecdotes, current event reports, debate, commentary, interviews, and expert testimony. The first segment sets up the issue, usually with an interview that outlines why it is important, how it has been or is being treated in the policy arena, and perhaps some voices of those affected by it. The middle segments include a moderated debate between two or more competing points of view. The last segment brings in additional voices and explores the topic from other viewpoints not covered by the debate. Together, the various pieces provide facts, relevant experiences, strengths and weaknesses, positions, and overviews of conversations in places where policy decisions are made. The year before we implemented this format in our classrooms (2006), the show’s format had recently been revised to better fulfill its commitment to civil discourse. It shifted from a staged to a studio debate and added additional layers of context and commentary. Unfortunately, the year after our implementation (2008), Justice Talking was cancelled because it is very expensive to produce. It remains, nonetheless, an archive and a model of civic dialogue, and we can give it further life within our composition classrooms.
The intent of the assignment is for students to use the Justice Talking format to compose their own broadcast, on an issue they are assigned or on one of their choice. Such an assignment can accomplish both disciplinary and civic goals, and can be used in a variety of writing courses while also serving broader societal goals. At a disciplinary level, oppositional debate and the integration of contrasting perspectives both embody the spirit of ancient rhetoric. At a civic level, the assignment encourages students as citizens to make judgments about an issue, individually and collectively, after reproducing, understanding, and critiquing various points of view. In other words, the Justice Talking format offers a process that invites students to discover multiple perspectives and contrasting arguments on an issue, to weigh them critically, and to perform that process for their audience.
Such an assignment reconnects us with some of the roots of our discipline. An assignment such as the Justice Talking collaboration follows the aspirations of The New Rhetoric Project (NRP), as initiated by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969), and participates in a commitment to rational agents who are capable of engaging in dialectical-rhetorical argumentation to make collaborative decisions. Like the NRP, it offers a method with contextualized case studies; it envisions the fundamental speech act of persuasion as one that begins in agreement or stasis with premises both sides will commit to publicly; and it provides an ethical framework for understanding argument as the expression of human reason. In his review of where the NRP is headed in the future, Frank described the project as a “blueprint for civil society,” one that appreciates the plurality of human values and that fosters empathy in understanding the dissent of others (2004, p. 270).
Moreover, this assignment aligns with a more recent public turn in the fields of composition and argument theory where book length studies have begun to emerge that connect rhetoric, composition, argumentation theory, and the role of public engagement in our writing classrooms. Roberts-Miller’s Deliberate Conflict (2004) categorizes an array of political theories to explain available classroom strategies when we guide our students to engage in responsible and responsive public arguments. However, the book remains more theoretical than practical. A more practical application of theories of social engagement, Weisser’s Moving Beyond Academic Discourse (2002), first situates composition theory historically in its turn toward public writing and then extends Habermasian notions of the public sphere. While Robert-Miller leads us in the direction of deliberative democracy, Weisser likewise encourages us to envision writing as an act of democratic citizenship.
Additionally, we are seeing a renewed interest in deliberative democracy among researchers from a variety of disciplines who foresee a 21st century opportunity for greater collaboration among citizens and government decision makers in an increasingly networked society. Because the processes of decision-making in our democracy have become intimately networked, evolving arguments, on issues civic, political, legal, and scientific, will continue to spread through mass media channels. Could this be the end of democracy, or perhaps the beginning of a rejuvenated deliberative democracy?
The Deliberative Democracy Consortium as well as the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University are looking to information and communication technologies (ICT) with a hopeful answer to that question. Network communications, they believe, allow for a more direct democracy “where the political subject is transformed from a self-seeking individual into a public-oriented citizen through the process of intersubjective argumentation” (Dahlberg, 2001). In other words, the transformation from self-interest to public-interest is more probable when citizens participate regularly in deliberative processes that by definition require them to listen to and reflect on divergent viewpoints and to negotiate meaning out of that dialectical process. These interdisciplinary projects offer future opportunities for compositionists to further align their teaching and research with efforts to educate citizens and encourage civic engagement. The Justice Talking assignment is a move in that direction.