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The kitchen table classroom & my first rhetoric teacherPosted Saturday, March 22, 2008, at 7:37 PM
Richard Crump, May 2007.
There are good rhetorical reasons for doing so, of course.
Citing sources is at least a gesture toward intellectual honesty. There's no way to trace back to the source every idea we have or argument we make, but we can show where we got specific facts or opinions that have influenced us. The result is to improve our own credibility in the process.
Citing sources also allows us to borrow from the credibility of our sources. You might not be likely to believe me, but if I can find a source you respect whose words support mine, I've got a better chance of being persuasive.
And so on.
I used to teach this stuff to college freshpeople, some of whom occasionally managed to keep their eyes open until I'd finished going on and on about what a great idea it is to properly cite sources. Don't worry about where the commas go or whether to use parenthetical notes or footnote, I said. Understand the spirit of citation and you'll be fine. Citation is cool, I'd say. It's a powerful tool! I may have waved my arms in the air a bit.
Not that it helped.
But you see, I come by my enthusiasm naturally. I got it from my father.
My dad and I have been arguing with each other for about 40 years or so. Not just the usual father-son disagreements ("Can I have the car?" "No." "Why not?" "Because I said so." "Why'd you say so?" "Because you'll wreck it." "I won't!" "You already did. Twice." Etc.) -- we had those, too -- but political disagreements, ideological battles.
He didn't resort to the prototypical parentalauthority argumentstopper -- "Because I said so" -- with me. He used a whole set of tools, an array of surgical instruments -- described and categorized by the ancient Greeks as logos, ethos and pathos -- yes, he used rhetoric on me.
So to defend myself and my cherished, hopelessly naive ideas, I had to learn to use those tools, too. Sink or swim. Learn to argue or learn to lose.
By golly, we had some fine, rousing dinner-table debates over the years. He would cite historical examples, contemporary experts, facts and figures -- and then expect me to do the same if I wanted to be taken seriously. In the years after I'd gone out on my own, when I'd moved away and career and family made those debates less frequent, he would often send me "care packages" of articles he'd read and essays he'd written on the subject of the most recent battle.
I learned, for instance, the value of seeing other perspectives in order to strengthen the argument for my own. One memorable argument involved whether he should allow hunters to harvest snow geese from a farm he owned and I lived on. At the time, I thought protecting the beautiful swirling blizzard of geese as they spiraled from the sky would easily trump any argument for encouraging their bloody demise. But I learned that there are different ways of looking at flocks of snow geese: 1. aesthetic (aren't they pretty?), 2. sport/nutrition (let's shoot some and eat them), and 3. agribusiness (geese leave droppings full of weed seed and those weeds will cost a bundle to fight next summer). Each is legitimate, and if you want to argue for one, you'd better understand the others, even if you don't agree with them.
Rhetoric, done right, is really just a vigorous (and occasionally belligerent) process of learning, after all.
When Dad retired and finally had time to explore the Internet, he became an even more prolific political writer and researcher. He's purely an amateur (in the very best sense of the word), tending to employ email and letters to educate editors and legislators and friends and acquaintances and family members with his thoughtful and thoroughly researched diatribes.
At one point, we even tried to set up a blog we called Divided We Stand (the name intended to suggest that in spite of our irreconcilable ideological differences, we are still family; we still love and respect each other). Alas, it didn't take off, mostly because I didn't manage to carve out enough time to do my part. It would have been great fun, though, whether anyone else read it.
Our debates are fewer now than ever. We only get together a couple of times a year. The rest of the family doesn't always appreciate the escalating volume of our "conversations" (Dad's hearing isn't what it used to be, so we start loud and get louder), so we abstain from doing battle at the dinner table. But it doesn't matter. His influence on me has been made. And so with some exceptions, you're likely to see citations in my blog posts and columns, evidence that I've done as much homework on the subject as I could given the time available.
I mention all this because my father, Richard D. Crump, turned 80 March 15. I wished him a happy birthday at the time, but it seemed inadequate considering all he's done for me -- teaching me rhetoric not the least. So in addition to a happy birthday wish, I wish to say thank you, Dad, for teaching me a valuable skill and a fun sport.
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Eric Crump is the editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He's listening to Bob James right now.
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