Thursday, March 10, 2005

Reading :: Deliberate Conflict

Originally posted: Thu, 10 Mar 2005 10:10:03

Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes

by Patricia Roberts-Miller

One of the tragedies of working in academics is that your colleagues necessarily don't share your specialty. When you're building a department, the strategy is to hire widely so that you have a larger repertoire of courses to offer and a wider field of inquiry. So I find myself working closely with people sharing my particular specialties across the country -- and wondering exactly what my colleague two doors down is up to.

That colleague, Trish Roberts-Miller, just published her second book. And though it's not in my specialty, it seems both smart and important. Deliberate Conflict is a book about how we teach freshman composition, one that takes seriously the question: when we claim that we are teaching students to be citizens, to argue effectively in public discourse, exactly what model(s) of public discourse are we using and to what end are we using them? What are the assumptions that underpin how we teach? This turns out to be a rather interesting question, and the answers are not tremendously obvious.

To map the territory, Roberts-Miller gives us a matrix (p.12):

- agonistic and expressive

- agonistic and deliberative

- irenic and expressive

- irenic and deliberative

Is ideal speech irenic (oriented toward agreement) or agonistic (oriented toward disagreement)? Is the public sphere ideally expressive (where individuals express their own points of view) or deliberative (where individuals try to "establish mutually binding policy")? (p.12) When we teach public argumentation, what do we hold as the ideal?

Throughout the book, Roberts-Miller methodically demonstrates that these questions matter quite a bit, and that they haven't been well addressed in our scholarship, our textbooks, or our classes. Textbooks in particular are demonstrated as holding internally contradictory views on public argumentation. The scholarship tends to be a bit more consistent, but still tends to mix up ontology and epistemology and still tends not to trace through the implications of various positions. Roberts-Miller is especially hard on social constructivism, whose consequences for the public sphere are quite well dissected. And she cautions us against thinking that arguments are necessarily supposed to be settled. Some authors

assert that resolution is necessarily the goal of argument, and I take issue with that assertion. Certainly, it is for certain kinds of policy deliberations, as there will ultimately be some kind of policy written or not written, but that seems less the case for philosophical, political, aesthetic, and disciplinary arguments. In such cases, simply identifying the disagreements seem a useful beginning as well as even an end. And that is the intention of this book. (p.226)

I'm no political theorist, nor a pedagogical theorist, but I can still see the enormous value in thinking through these issues. Take a look and see if you have the same experience.

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