Community and the Rhetoric Classroom

Photo of Jeff and Britta from the sitcom Community

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Jeff Winger is Socrates’ worst nightmare. As an former lawyer disbarred for having a phony bachelor’s degree, and whose central skill on the NBC sitcom Community is manipulating others’ emotions with his words, Jeff bears out almost all of the concerns Socrates expresses in the Phaedrus and Gorgias about what can happen when training and skill in rhetoric is divorced from a strong moral code.

Quick context before I get back to talking about Jeff’s sophistic wiles (and, eventually, pedagogy—I promise): Community is a show about the increasingly unrealistic/delightful adventures of a community-college study group, and Jeff is one of the show’s and group’s central characters. He’s back in school to replace the fake degree mentioned above, and is usually—though not always—a raging narcissist.

As a narcissist, he frequently uses his abilities in judicial speech to make his own life easier: talking his groupmates into giving him extra help on class projects or tests, talking the dean into giving him credit for made-up courses. And his groupmates, ever more aware of his proclivity, venture observations about Jeff that sound strikingly similar to the observations ventured by the Greek sophists’ contemporaries. Jeff “always [knows] what to say and always [knows] when to slap the table” (“Contemporary American Poultry”); thus—like Gorgias’ audiences—his listeners are “willing but not forcibly made slaves” by his words (Plato, Philebus 58a). When he finds it difficult to compose a wedding toast, his friend Annie is skeptical, observing, “You once convinced [someone] that turtlenecks were made of turtles’ necks.” Jeff concurs, noting, “My superpower is being able to assume any position that suits my purpose” (“Urban Matrimony”). Jeff Winger: 21st-century master of the dissoi logoi.

And then there’s Britta. Another member of the study group, she alternates between playing Jeff’s antagonist, love interest, and conscience. If Jeff’s superpower is speaking well in support of whatever position serves his purposes, Britta’s is being dubbed “the worst” as she alienates friends and strangers alike with her frequently off-putting commitment to social causes (consider montage #1). 

In one episode, as the other characters talk excitedly about the delicious nature of their college cafeteria’s chicken fingers, she proudly declares, “I wouldn’t know. I’m a vegetarian. And if you guys knew how they treated the animals you’re eating, you would eat then even faster just to put the out of their misery. And then you would throw up” (“Contemporary”). By the time her speech shifts gears into a pathetic—and not in the classical sense—lament over her pet cat’s health problems, the rest of the group has gone from rolling their eyes to literally sprinting for the door, dashing toward the promise of a coveted chicken finger. In short, Britta Perry is a supremely ineffective rhetor. But—perhaps not coincidentally—Britta is also the moral center of the show.

Why, you might ask, is this relevant to a blog that is not (yet) a Community fanblog? Because, for me, Jeff and Britta serve as frequent reminders of the diversity of students and student attitudes I am likely to encounter as a rhetoric instructor. There are Jeffs, who might see a rhetoric course as an easy “A,” a chance to show off skills they already possess on the way to the meaningless, bureaucratic credential of a college degree. And there are Brittas, who might actually be better at empathizing with and considering the perspectives of the marginalized, but aren’t skilled at considering their peers’ perspectives in a way that will persuade said peers to take seriously the plights of the marginalized. (And, of course, there are Abeds, Annies, Changs, Pierces, Shirleys, and Troys, but this is a blog post—not a dissertation chapter [yet].) Strong persuasive skills with little ethical support, strong ethical character with little rhetorical savvy, and all point in between.

As a teacher of rhetoric, my tendency is often to valorize the Brittas and dread the Jeffs, feeling—like Socrates—that effective rhetorical instruction without an explicit focus on ethical content risks creating narcissistic manipulators. Despite the excess of credit such a worry likely grants to a one-semester first-year rhetoric course, it’s a worry that pesters me every time a student offers an inadvertently xenophobic comment in a class discussion.

My inclination with such comments is often to jump in with a brief counter-declamation, one that demonstrates—for instance—why men aren’t innately superior to women as college professors. But, in my more reflective moments, I wonder if I’m giving the student-communities I facilitate too little credit. After all, it’s rarely the teachers on Community who effect change in the study-group characters—the students effect change in each other. When Jeff gives persuasive speeches intended to prevent the group’s fragmentation, he doesn’t do so because he’s received in-class ethical instruction. It’s because the sense of community engendered by the group has fostered in him a sense of ethical responsibility for its members’ well-being (cue montage #2).

And beginning to understand her groupmates is one thing that helps Britta better communicate the import of social causes.

Obviously Community is artificial (but hey, so are Plato’s dialogues), so its merit as a ground for reflecting on one’s teaching practices might be doubtful. At the very least, however, I do find it helpful as a reminder of how potent a persuasive influence students can have on each other, and a check on my occasional urges to assume ethical caveats in the classroom must come from the teacher. Perhaps I instead need to leave more time for my students to respond to and complicate each other’s perspectives, myself learning to ask questions that effectively open spaces for ethical inter-student communities, rather than tending towards Socratic monologues that seek to impose morality from above.

Works Cited

"Contemporary American Poultry." Community: The Complete First Season. Sony, 2010. DVD.

Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1987. Print.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1995. Print.

Plato. Philebus. The Older Sophists. Ed. Rosamund Kent Sprague. 1972. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001. 39. Print.

"Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts." Community. Hulu. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.


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