Embodying a Controversy

Art E. Rial's The Thinker


Axel Bohmann

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Art E. Rial | Body Worlds 3: The Thinker

This summer, my parents asked me to review an article they were writing for a handbook on systemic counselling. The topic was using the body as a resource as well as an agent in problem-solving strategies and decision-making. Mom and Dad wrote the interaction between cognition and embodiment (and their fundamental inseparability), the bi-directionality of psycho-somatic processes, etc. All of which I felt was very interesting, but at the time seemed slightly too obvious to really excite me. But as I think about my teaching this semester, I keep coming back to the issue of embodiment and I realize that, yes, I have been aware of it for quite some time but, admittedly, have failed to … well, embody what I knew.

An example from the rhetoric classes I teach (it's intermediate level this semester, but I speak mostly from my past experience with introductory courses). In these, each student has to select a controversy to map, analyze chosen positions in depth, and finally take her own stance. One of the key realizations I want students to make is that a controversy is much more multi-faceted than “pro and con.” To that end, my students get to use a number of tools for visualizing the relationships between individual stakeholders when they work towards mapping their controversy (color coding, mind mapping, etc.). Students typically find these quite helpful.

Yet as they begin defining and verbalizing their own position, I've noticed there often is a relapse into the two-camps model. And I as the instructor am probably not innocent in that regard. An exercise I've been doing at the beginning of Unit 3 (constructing arguments) serves as a good example: this is only a slight variation of the split-the-class-in-half-then-debate exercise I am familiar with from high school. There are three groups and each gets assigned one position in a given controversy, usually with the third group mediating between the first two. They get into three different corners of the room and rhetorically batter away at each other (well, there is a reflection part to it, too, but that just as an aside). I think it's quite telling that the third group often ends up aligning more or less with one of the first two and feels like they argue that group's point only less decidedly.

The problem is that this splitting up into distinct blocks with predetermined position glosses over a lot of the nuances students have learned to identify when mapping and analyzing controversies. It presents positions as fairly unitary and static, and puts direct argumentative confrontation center stage.

This semester I hope to use space, movement, gaze and posture in better ways to help students navigate their controversies with more flexibly and elegantly. I'm not sure about the exact details yet, but I am thinking about smaller group exercises where each individual has an assigned set of basic beliefs and a goal expressed in proxemic terms (e.g. “try to get Kim to stand as closely to you as possible” or “separate Max and Kabriesha as far from each other as possible”). I would probably have each group member put forth an argument in turn and have everybody else react to this argument physically (by moving away from/towards others, directing their gaze one particular way, etc.). The goal would be for students to see that their arguments influence everybody in the controversy, even the ones that do not move, since the constellation inevitably gets altered. Also, this could be really helpful in getting them to think about navigating multiple audiences: convincing one group without agitating another, for instance.


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