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Highbrow Rhetoric at Taco Bueno

Unfortunately for my students, what gets discussed more than anything in my ENGL 1301 and 1302 courses is Taco Bueno. Its menu. Its price. Its parking lots. Okay, perhaps this is a stretch. Let me clarify before I get myself into trouble.

Every teacher has a technique. We all want to connect with our students. We all want out students to learn. And, in an ideal classroom, we all want our students to connect to the material we are teaching. To do this we try a number of techniques and strategies. Some of them bomb; others go quite well; most of them seem to fit somewhere in the middle. Like all of you, I have my own techniques to help my students connect with the material. Some of them don’t work, while others get the job done. And while I vary my examples and artifacts on a weekly basis, from an all-campus email from a high-ranking university official to an article from the New York Times, I have realized that I have one recurring example: Taco Bueno. Strange, I know. How does Taco Bueno provide material for discussion? In a class focused on issues and writing about them, how does a typical fast-food restaurant provide fodder for rhetorical discussion? Or, as my students’ faces seem to consistently ask, why the hell do we keep talking about Taco Bueno?

When I say that Taco Bueno is my recurring example, what I mean is that I am consistently trying to contextualize the material of rhetorical analysis and writing for my students. And, for me, this works best whenever I use mundane, easy-to-understand examples; i.e. Taco Bueno. This takes place in a number of ways. On a day when we are talking about claims, reasons, evidence, etc. on a general, introductory manner, I’ll provide an example to illustrate what I mean. So when I tell them that their arguments are based on a central claim, a focused idea of which they are trying to convince their audience, I’ll give them an example: “We should eat at Taco Bueno after class.” Sophisticated? No. Well-worded? Of course not. But it’s a claim, and it’s something that students can understand without difficulty. On another day we might talk about counterarguments and responding to naysayers. We discuss what exactly it means to address a naysayer respectfully and present their argument fairly and accurately: “At the same time, Todd Womble—a local manager of a Taco Bell—argues that Bell consistently uses fresher and better ingredients in their items.” We talk about finding common ground and making concessions: “Womble makes a strong point in his description of Bell’s ingredients, and he is correct to assert that Bell does in fact use fresh produce.” And we stress the importance of offering specific and strong rebuttals: “But while Womble does make strong points about Taco Bell’s ingredients, this argument does not necessarily show that Bell’s products are any ‘fresher’ than those used by Taco Bueno. If Taco Bell uses fresh tomatoes and lettuce, does this mean that Taco Bueno cannot use similar ingredients?”

By the latter half of the semester, my students are not surprised to hear something about Taco Bueno. Whenever we talk about a specific element of our papers, or discuss a new aspect of rhetorical theory and academic writing, they know that our recurring Bueno discussion will soon resume. I assume that some of them find this strange, and others probably wish that I would move on to a different example. But I do know that each of them understands exactly what these Taco Bueno examples mean, and this is why I continue to use them. In order for lower-level composition students to advance to higher-level rhetorical writing, we must challenge them to think in new and uncomfortable ways. But I feel strongly that they must first recognize and comprehend the basic elements and conventions before they move on to these challenges. And, for me, using unsophisticated examples like convincing your roommate where you want to go to dinner, or arguing about which fast-food joint offers better hot sauce and a bigger parking lot, allows me to be sure that my students do understand what exactly a claim is, how you go about formulating a reason, what it means to address a naysayer, etc.

This does not come from reading articles or books about pedagogy, and I know that no one ever advised me to find a fast-food restaurant to clarify my teaching. Instead, I think this comes from years spent in a classroom as a student, struggling to understand the material in front of me. As a student, I know what it’s like to be confused and frustrated with the subject matter. I can empathize with my students whenever they are clueless about an assignment or unsure about how to start their essay. I have felt the same way. And in my own experiences, whether in a freshman mathematics course or a graduate seminar on literary theory, the best way I was able to overcome this confusion and grasp some sort of comprehension was through contextualization via clear and easy-to-understand illustrations and examples. I still use these examples when I re-encounter certain theories or confusing analyses today, and they continue to help me. I don’t want to patronize my students, and I know that a move beyond these simplistic arguments is the goal. But a foundation built on understanding and comprehension undoubtedly fosters more productive attempts at achieving this goal.

Borrowing from the teachers that have helped me in the past, I want to enable my students in their efforts to “master” rhetorical argument and composition. And for me, recurring examples like Taco Bueno help me to do this.  To a certain extent, you probably do this same thing. What’s your Taco Bueno?

Published in:Todd Womble |on April 17th, 2012 |3 Comments »

This is not Breaking Bad.

Albuquerque. Downtown Hyatt Regency. Thirteenth floor. Friday, mid-morning. Vacuum in background. Elevator bell down the hall. Door handle of 1306 blinks green twice. Door opens. Light creeps beyond the barrier of thick curtains. Message indicator blinks red on phone. Debris covers the bed.

This is not, unfortunately, a scene from Breaking Bad. Walter White is not holding the room key, Jesse Pinkman is not eating Funions on the bed, and Gus Fring is not waiting on the end of the telephone line. Instead, I am the one opening the door in New Mexico three weeks ago. I am there to present a paper, not manufacture narcotics, and my 24 hours in Albuquerque are about as far from the television show as you can imagine (minus the fried chicken).

The city played host to the 33rd annual meeting of the Southwest Texas PCA/ACA Conference. I arrived towards the end, on a Friday morning, because I had class (as teacher and as student) the day before. I got to the hotel in-between sessions, and luckily they let me check into my room early. After dropping my bags off, I went through my normal routine: 1) Check-in at the registration table, where I receive the brightly-colored monogrammed tote bag (this one was orange) and politely accept my complimentary coffee mug/travel thermos/paperweight/etc; 2) Make my way past the book displays, where I find the perfect distance between the wall and the table where I can see the titles to the books while still looking just disinterested enough for the sellers to leave me be; 3) Check out the snack machines/hotel amenities; and 4) Return to my room to assess my television options for my stay.

Back in the room I spend some time grading Reading Responses for my 1302 class and scout my options for lunch. I also browse through the conference program (this time it’s on a flash-drive rather than paper) and try and figure out which session(s) I will try and make it to that afternoon. I find a couple that sound interesting and make my way to the free lunch in the Grand Pavilion. After lunch I grade a few more Reading Responses and then head to Session 3076: “Sports 1: Mediasport” in Grand Pavilion IV. Here are the titles of the papers: “American Sports Stories: from the Weight Room to the Classroom”; “Sports in the Twitter Age”; and “Drinkin and Drivin: The Complicated Relationship between NASCAR and Alcohol.” I show up a few minutes early–to get a prime seat, of course–and the session begins a few minutes late. Grand total attendance: 4. This includes the presenters. One of the presenters has apparently had to cancel, so the panel and crowd are equal at 2 apiece. In a crowded session, the pressure is on the presenter. In “Sports 1: Mediasport,” the pressure was on the audience. I have never listened so closely to a presentation or tried harder to think of something interesting to say. My fellow audience-member and I–after moving up a few rows once we realized it was just us–were able to perform quite well, and by the end of the session there had actually been some rather interesting and productive conversations. I learned a few things and was able to provide some helpful feedback. I went back to my room with that good, academically-productive feeling.

My session was the next morning: “Cormac McCarthy I” in Sendero Ballroom III. The titles: “Lester Ballard and His Discontents: Understanding Cormac McCarthy’s Grotesque Hero through Freud” (this was mine); “No Country for Lawyers: Cormac McCarthy’s Legal Landscapes”; and “Post 9/11 and Post 2008: How to Read Cormac McCarthy and the American Dream.” Luckily my session had a much bigger crowd than “Sport 1: Mediasport” (probably 10-15, thanks to McCarthy’s popularity), and things went well. My fellow presenters were well-read and intelligent, and their papers inspired some great conversations. I also received some interesting questions and comments from the crowd, and after staying for “Cormac McCarthy II,” I again left with that good ol’ feeling of productivity.

This was my fifth or sixth conference experience, and they have all been unique in certain ways, while also strangely similar. And while the good feelings I get from presenting my work are important, I find myself with some questions about the conference system. I remember at one conference (I think it was the College English Association National Conference in San Antonio) being told rather stringently while standing at the registration table to do one thing: attend sessions. This was not a “I hope you enjoy your time at CEA” type of message; this was an “If you don’t attend sessions you are committing academic sin and are not here for the right reasons” message. And after going to more and more, I understand this push: how many sessions are like “Sport I: Mediasport”? How many presenters find themselves reading their work to one or two people, including their fellow presenters? What can be done about this? Is this, in fact, a problem? Where are all of the conference-goers if not attending the actual conference? Seeing the town (which seems a stretch considering some of the destinations)? Chatting with friends? Watching Breaking Bad in their hotel rooms? Maybe I’m just going to the wrong conferences.

I personally have experienced this audience-void before, and I remember being unsure about how I felt. On one hand, who cared how many people heard me? I still got to put it on my CV, and I still had the opportunity to present my work to a couple of people that seemed genuinely interested. On the other hand, what’s the point of reading my work if noone is listening? I always tell my students to join the larger conversation when they make an argument, because without that they have no reason to speak. If noone else wants to hear about Larry McMurty and small-town Texas, or Paul Auster and epistemology (two previous papers I presented to rather minimal crowds), then what purpose am I serving? Why pay for the hotel room, flight, rental car, registration, food, etc.? Is it worth the line on my CV?

Yes, it’s worth it. At least for me it is. I think that as English Department people we have already accepted the fact that not many people are going to be in the audience whenever we speak. We know that most people don’t care about what we care about, and most people aren’t interested in what we are interested in (At least that’s how I feel around most of my family, friends, neighbors, etc.) But we don’t write our papers and give our talks because most people want to hear them; we do these things for the few that do. We do it because the conversations that take place between 4 people in “Sport I: Mediasport” are, for us, valuable and worthwhile.

So I will continue to go to my one conference a year and read my paper to a small crowd of fellow _______-lovers (fill in the blank with whatever author, book, tv show, genre, etc. that you are interested in). And I will continue to explain to my roommates: Yes, I do actually fly across the country to listen to people I don’t know read papers I didn’t write about books I haven’t read. And I will continue to go to sessions like “Sport I: Mediasport,” “Southern Literature III: Flannery O’Connor,” and “Grateful Dead 13: Presenting the Dead, Historically and Artifactually”; not because it’s as exciting as watching Breaking Bad, because it’s certainly not; not because of the free monogrammed tote bags, which are slowly filling up my closet space; and not because I look forward to being another day or two behind my schoolwork; but because I believe it is worthwhile. If I didn’t, then why would I be doing what I’m doing with my life?

Of course, the CV line doesn’t hurt either.

Published in:Todd Womble |on March 5th, 2012 |4 Comments »