On Rhetoric

This past Friday, I finished my first semester teaching college. I taught the ‘art and craft of writing’ in the way that I, as a young Angelena, would have wanted to learn it. My diverse students wrote about the literacies they developed in their childhoods in the sunny, quiet places that rarely show up in books - Covina, Chino, and Diamond Bar. We did Day of the Dead freewrites to prompts by Cuban poet Eliseo Diego, and examined what rhetoric is and how it is used in the public square, to different ends, by different people. To that end, we examined the rhetorical discussions that led to the renaming of Columbus Day to be Indigenous People’s Day here in Los Angeles (picture below).

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And through Writer’s Studio appointments, I worked on projects such as helping a Generation 1.5 student with her assignment visualizing what it would be like for her, as a 21st century Vietnamese American woman, to engage with the different racial communities present in colonial America. I helped a working mom of two craft her thesis on the importance of cultural competency in health care, and worked with a Korean divinity scholar to get his chapters on internationalization publication ready. I also worked with Honors College freshmen to help them explore their use of written rhetoric (and end their semester with an acapella rendition of ‘Carol of the Bells) and helped Johns Hopkins University graduate students learn the fundamentals of grant writing. (I was thrilled they liked a writing device I affectionately dubbed “the toddler” - ask why over and over and over again until you arrive at your true point.)

In all of these scenarios, I had students ask, what is the negative space in the story - what are you *not* saying? It’s good to check for, because it’s often the very thing you need to say. Whether it’s a detail or a deep feeling, it cracks things open so the light gets in. And with that, we see things, ourselves, and the cities we live in as they actually are.

That is never more true than during the Christmas season. Christmas is the time of year during which we most celebrate the whole story, as it were - Christmas lights on the lawn illuminate the red-nosed reindeer who was thought to be unfit to lead Santa’s sleigh, and a Christ child who was born outside, among animals, to young, scared parents. In both of these scenarios, vulnerability - and the radical redemption that comes from embracing one’s whole self - is not just a sideline story but the story itself.

This fall, this vulnerability also applied to me. I had always grown up watching my mother teach composition, and I was a bit intimidated to try it myself. Writing is hard (there’s no way around that, or use in trying to pretend otherwise) and teaching people to be open to even trying to like it is even harder. But the beautiful thing here is that that plasticity went both ways - in focusing my classroom on effort, on attempt, on iteration, my students said they “felt free” to learn and try. And so did I.

This semester taught me that we can make room for ourselves, in the academy and elsewhere. And we can do that by telling true stories. Storytelling is powerful, and honesty wins.

Happy holidays -