Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Teaching the Art of Conversation and Civility

Alissa Wilkinson


June 24, 2011
by Alissa Wilkinson

"The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness."
—Proverbs 16:21

"Hatred is just a failure of the imagination.
—Graham Greene,
The Power and the Glory

Teaching first-year college students to write is dull: lots of circling comma splices and reminding them to keep verb tenses consistent and cite sources properly. But at the college where I teach, the mission statement includes having graduates who are ready to "influence strategic institutions."

In other words, we're trying to make public intellectuals. It's a hilariously high-minded goal, but colleges are in the business of inspiring, and it's left to the faculty to translate that into calculus and American politics and, yes, English grammar.

So I wonder: should my first-year students be expressing well-formed opinions in a public forum by the end of the term, or should I settle for just getting complete English sentences? Ten years ago, I could have easily gone only for the latter, reasoning that my colleagues would handle the “thinking” part before we unleashed the gowned-and-mortar-boarded throng on society.  Today, I'm less certain because today’s students have the Internet, and they're not afraid to use it.

My students and I had a conversation about this last semester.  One day we discussed Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books essay about The Social Network and the challenges facing millennials, digital natives like my students, who start their online lives early.  Smith cites a scene in the movie, where after being excoriated (unjustly) by college sophomore Mark Zuckerberg on his blog, his ex-girlfriend Erica tells him, "The internet's not written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink." Nothing really goes away on the internet, I told my students. I explained how the Wayback Machine makes it possible to see what, say, the New York Times looked like in 1996, or what my blog looked like when I was in college.

A student slowly raised her hand and asked, "Wait. Does this mean the comments I left on pictures in junior high school will still be there when I have kids, if I don't delete them?" Well, yes. It does. And maybe even if you delete them. As does the uncharitable comments you left on an article about a political candidate, and the blog you kept that detailed your unhappiness with your roommate. Someone could cache the page or take a screenshot. And let's hope you didn't “accidentally” send an unsavory Tweet if you're planning to hold public office.

Ostensibly, I teach for my students’ future public lives. But the Internet is a dangerous place for those who have not formed good communication habits. And if they are winsome in the future, but not now, the permanency of the new digital public square will come back to haunt them.

The challenge is this: How can an eighteen-year-old learn this lesson? In her wonderful little book Caring For Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre exhorts her reader to love language, to pursue both truthful and playful speech: creativity in communication makes us better conversationalists, she says, and "conversation is a form of activism"—a way to effect change in the world winsomely.

So around the sixth week of the semester, I assign two essays. In the first, my students  persuade a chosen audience of the rightness of an opinion. I keep the second week's topic quiet until they've handed in the first. As they turn in their papers, I pass out the next assignment: argue the opposite position.

Some complain. To do so, they say, would be to tell lies. But I tell them to use their imaginations. I tell them to use this as an opportunity to play grown-up make-believe—to walk around inside someone else's head and see what it would be like to think their way. I tell them to imagine the assignment as a conversation.  Afterwards, I ask them what they've learned. Some discovered their original position was not black and white. Others, echoing Aristotle, realized that appeals to human emotion can be just as effective as appeals to cold, hard facts.

Some still hate the exercise. But I have a responsibility to help them learn to listen and converse, to think through what their opponents and conversation partners are saying, and not to shout at one another. And they have a place to practice that now.

—Alissa Wilkinson is a co-editor at Comment Magazine and an instructor in English at The King’s College in New York City.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”