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Ratcliffe’s ideas on listening metonymically caught my attention.  When I read chapter three, I wrestled with the notion of this principle applying only to race and gender.  I don’t believe that it does.  And for the record, I don’t feel that Ratcliffe would, either, though obviously her focus is on race and gender issues.  Rather, I was drawn to this section because, at a basic level, I found myself as a teacher of writing, I sometimes feel like I’m speaking for all writers when I discuss writing concepts with my students.  Naturally, I try to hedge my bets, so they say, in my teaching practices, informing students of conventions to follow, conventions to break, and the good sense to understand the rhetoric of the situation.

Of course, I don’t speak for all writing instructors, and I know of several that would think my methodologies and conceptions of “good writing” to be flat-out wrong.  I’m reminded of a recent argument between the director of freshmen comp at UCO and one of the lecturers about the use of “I” in a paper.  The lecturer, locked in an outdated idea of writing, was shouting about how the paper should be failed–shouting, by the way, at his boss.  Okay, it’s not a great example of good teaching, but it is a good example of how I can’t speak for every instructor.  I tell my students to ask their instructors what they want in a paper.  Every instructor is different, and a kind of academic code-switching has to take place if they want to really succeed.

The rhetorical situation changes.  Yes.  We know this.  Students don’t.  Yes.  We know this.  My guess is that you’re not reading this anyway because you’re staring at the giant butt below this paragraph.  Monster guitar lady concrete soup Russia shoe car.

My students usually have a ball analyzing this ad.  Go figure.  Good thing, too, because Nike released an entire campaign for their Nike Women line of clothing and shoes.  I’ve only included a couple but every ad is similar to those I’ve posted: a portion of a woman’s body (always in black and white) against a stark white background with color splotches, some advertising shlock masking itself as empowered feminist poetry, and a swoosh.

As a class, we break down and critique this ad.  One point students inevitably bring up (and if they don’t, I try to steer them in this direction) is the fact that we don’t know anything about the woman in the ad based on her appearance–in fact, much has been done to mask her appearance.  We only see a portion of her body, in black and white, no evidence of ethnicity, age, etc.  We never, ever see her face.  This kind of advertising tactic ensures a strange complicating of Ratcliffe’s ideas: “Listening metonymically signifies the rhetorical-listening moves that listeners may make in public discussions when identifying a text or a person with a cultural group; specifically, this tactic invites listeners to assume that a text or a person is associated with–but not necessarily representative of–an entire cultural group” (78).  In a sense, these ads seem to speak for women, though not a group.  There is a factioning of women between those who scorn the athletic (according to Nike) and those that get scorned.  However, the ad also invites women to identify with it–the “I am proud of who I am” ethos that is ever-so-unsubtly-shoved-in-our-faces.

When my students and I discuss this ad, the language always comes up.  Deviously, I push this lesson to occur after logical fallacies, so when “it’s a border collie that herds skinny women away from the best deals” appears, students shout “false analogy!” at me.  False analogy yes, but it’s also one instance of Ratcliffe’s dysfunctional silence: “Function 4: A rhetoric of dysfunctional silence proceeds via the interpretive trope of reading metaphorically.  Because metaphor assumes that two unlike objects share a substance that marks them for comparison, the trop of reading metaphorically assumes that a text or person shares substance with all other members of its/his/her associated cultural group” (92).  But not to worry! Nike’s got all women covered, right? After all, there are other ads in the campaign, and surely one of their metaphors will hit home…right?

Okay, so she just needs a man? Er…

So…she’s just mannish?

Have kids, they make grandkids = fulfillment.

Maybe I’m making too much of this (he writes, donning his “this is what a Feminist looks like” t-shirt).  After all, these are just ads, and a student can easily see that they have no real bearing on their own reality.  We hope.  Ratcliffe notes that a “rhetoric of listening proceeds via a cultural logic that recognizes differences as well as commonalities” (95).  And that’s where these ads don’t work.  What differences they impart are imposed–herding skinny women from the best deals, my mother worries I’ll never marry, etc.  This form of cultural logic use easy tropes, best left to sitcoms from another era.  To use them in this confusing manner, well, confuses the listeners.

About halfway through writing this entry I realized how similar it is to Friday’s class.  The difference is both obvious and subtle: I teach freshmen (usually).  It’s an easy guess that we, as graduate students in a rhetoric class, are far more aware of the inner workings of language and the external executions of that language than our freshmen students are.  We may live the “life of the mind,” but our minds are constantly working to analyze, well, everything.  Speaking from my own experience, I have a hard time watching the news, reading the paper, or even going to a restaurant without some analysis happening in my head (and it’s annoying to many).  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  But our students don’t often consider the “hidden” messages that we so plainly see.  If they do have some analytical experience, it’s rudimentary (this, too, is from personal experience).  As a teacher of freshmen composition, I have found that critical analysis is an immeasurably important skill to teach.  Imagery, especially advertisements that utilize a mixture of text and images, offer easy entry into a form of rhetorical listening.  We can ask “what do images want from us?” and “what does this entity, company, etc., want me to believe–and why?”

Although I believe that Ratcliffe offers more tools to combat and counter preconceived (and ill-conceived) notions of gender and race, it seems that her larger goal concerns the ability of people to become mediators, agents of change whose purpose is to be engaged with each other and the surrounding culture at large.

*apologies to Malcolm Gladwell for lifting the title from his most excellent essay “Listening to Khakis