How can we know what is so natural to us that it is no longer visible to us? One answer to that question . . . is listening” (Ratcliffe 28).

While reading through Ratcliffe, what was so natural as to be invisible to me started to become more and more visible and audible. More than any of the other texts we’ve read this semester (yes, even more than Crowley), I found myself thinking about Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening constantly: while listening to this PRI interview with Jean and Joan Millington, the “Godmothers of Chic Rock,” while watching this segment on The Daily Show, particularly the round table discussion sparked by Ann Coulter’s remarks; while conversing with friends and family; and while reflecting on my own experiences in the classroom. All of these instances were perfect opportunities for rhetorical listening, but for this blog post I’ve decided to focus my analysis on a conversation I had with a friend and then on a particular classroom experience.

A Call from Tiffany*

Last week, a friend called to tell me about the rough week she was having at school. This video will offer a quick recap of our conversation. (Unfortunately, my first version was lost in an epic coffee spill, thank goodness the lap top survived. My second version isn’t as fancy or developed. Sorry. Also, you may need to pause the video to read the text. I wasn’t able to adjust the timing. Every program has its hiccups.)


My intentions for using this conversation are not to invite nor pass judgement on Tiffany, although as Ratcliffe suggests to her graduate student who tried to befriend a black classmate, the effects aren’t always those we intend. My intentions are to show how in this fifteen minute conversation with a friend, I was able to engage in some rhetorical listening moves, even though I may not have been able to identify them at the time. Keep in mind that this video includes only the bare bones of the conversation and virtually no context.

Context for my conversation with Tiffany

Tiffany and I have almost nothing in common, yet we’re friends. This has meant that over the course of our friendship we have encountered numerous topics on which we disagree. Now, the more that I reflect on our friendship, the more I realize how closely my interactions with Tiffany have resembled rhetorical listening. On page 33 Ratcliffe says that “by focusing on claims and cultural logics, listeners may still disagree with each other’s claims, but they may better appreciate that the other person is not simply wrong but functioning from within a different logic.” Whenever Tiffany makes a claim that I disagree with, I am constantly reminding myself to remember her background and history and her identifications and disidentifications. This doesn’t mean that I come to agree with her, it means that I have a better understanding of why she makes that claim. Without knowing exactly what I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to, as Ratcliffe explains, “negotiate [my] always evolving standpoints, [my] identity, with the always evolving standpoints of [Tiffany]” (34).

In sharing this experience, I also am not trying to pat myself on the back or brag about my rhetorical listening abilities. I only want to suggest that my eyes and ears are starting to pick up on things that were previously invisible. So here comes my counter-example. In this second situation, I would have benefited greatly from Ratcliffe’s tactic of listening pedagogically.

Teaching world literature to students in middle class white suburbia

If only I had read Ratcliffe years ago. My second teaching job was in the wealthy suburbs of south Jersey. The student population was not diverse — at all — and the senior curriculum was World Literature. From among the options on our reading list, I selected Kite Runner as a jumping off point for the year.

I personally enjoyed reading the novel, it’s topical, and I thought it would hold my students’ attention. While reading my students were required to keep reading journal entries. Many of my students responded to the novel similarly to the ways I had responded to it, but then there were the students whose responses I did not  anticipate – but I might have understood them better had I listened to them rhetorically.

What an ungrateful brat

I found one of my student’s responses to be so insensitive, so ignorant, so . . . AHH! It made me angry. SPOILER ALERT! At the end of the novel, an Afghani child whose parents were executed in his presence, who was sent to live in an orphanage that could not provide for the many orphans, who was then taken from the orphanage by a Taliban official who sexually abused him, who was then rescued from the Taliban official and told he would never be put in an orphanage again, who was then told he would have to go back to the orphanage, who then tried to commit suicide, who then survived and was brought to the U.S., lives with his new family for a year without speaking. At the end of the novel, he finally smiles.

One of my student’s responses included these comments: “I don’t understand why he would try to commit suicide. It seems like he was just being over dramatic about the whole situation. And I think it was really rude and ungrateful of him to not even say ‘thank you’ to his new family. I mean, they brought him to the U.S. all the way from Afghanistan, the least he could do is say ‘thank you.'”

This response enraged me. Far from rhetorical listening, this student couldn’t even consider putting him/herself in this little boy’s shoes. While this comment is the one I remember most vividly, there were many students who at one point or another expressed resistance to the novel, its characters, and its themes.

What I did but maybe shouldn’t have . . .

Ratcliffe notes on page 147 that, “student/teacher resistance is not always based on an unwillingness to hear but sometimes on an incapacity to hear, an incapacity grounded in a lack of reflective lived experience or in a lack of the work necessary to understand commonalities and differences.” When I considered my upper-middle class white suburbia students’ resistances to this novel, these two incapacities seemed to be the problem. So what did I do? I couldn’t make them have reflective lived experiences (although that’s what Claire did to Haley in this past week’s episode of Modern Family), so instead I went the route of working on understanding commonalities. I decided to pair Kite Runner with the film Persepolis, and I asked my students to view the film looking for aspects about growing up that are universal. Oh boy . . .

First, did you notice that I said I went the route of working on understanding commonalities and left out understanding differences? I was as Ratcliffe diagnoses, “gravitat[ing], almost by default, toward places of common ground, that is, places of commonalities with other people, texts, and cultures” (32).  In my approach differences were “glossed over or erased, left outside the circle of consubstantiality.” Is it possible I took such a Burkean stance on identifications because my students were operating as postmodernists who perceived commonalities as “impossible or as impossibly naive?” (32). Second, did you notice I missed the important step of Move #5: Exposing the perceived “universality” of tropes and that universality is a situated term (152-153).

If only I had known Ratcliffe’s tactics of rhetorical listening, I would have still done my Kite Runner/Persepolis pairing, but I would have gone about it differently. Just as Ratcliffe shares how she wishes she had handled her student’s response in the Cornel West discussion differently, I wish I had handled that reading journal response differently and the subsequent cramming of my stance down my students’ throats. While my ears have been perking up these last two weeks, I hope that I continue to hone my rhetorical listening skills.

* Psydonym