The End-of-Semester Talk

Sign reading Obama Isn't Working hangs in front of American flag in empty factory


Jay Voss

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Towards the end of the semester, I always like asking students to reflect upon what they have learned and to assess the value of it. This is probably a fairly standard practice – I remember teachers doing it to myself since second grade – but it seems more necessary in these days of budget cuts and attitudes fostered by entitled entertainment. Big pictures are good, especially when you’re teaching rhetoric to a room full of science and business majors. The moment for this reflection always comes at that point in the semester (for myself and my students) inwhich work isn’t divinely inspired but rather fragmented and hurried, an ethic not necessarily lending itself towards deliberation. This semester I was just thinking I’d have the moment with my students during the last week of classes, before they ran off to jump their last hurdles of library books and/or end up in the pool. But then a cup of coffee got me thinking.

I was at Starbucks and had just read Paul Krugman’s recent column, “The Amnesia Candidate” (22 April 2012). The article is a thoughtful evaluation of Mitt Romney’s most recent campaign rhetoric, and is especially efficient in the way it attacks the former governor for blaming some of Bush’s legacy on Obama. While Krugman does concede that Obama could have handled economic matters differently, he ultimately concludes by asking “Are the American people forgetful enough for Romney’s attack to work?”. This is a complex question. You hear cynics complain all the time that American voters have a 6-month attention span, which is often compromised by consumer culture’s narcotization. I think this is probably true to a degree, but how could it not be given technology’s onslaught of information? It isn’t so much a question of whether or not voters can recall that Romney’s speech was given in a warehouse which was shut down during the Bush years – to suggest as much is to blame the average American voter for not having the mind of a Princeton professor, which would be ignorant. “Work” here, it seems to me, is a question or whether or not Romney can emotionally engage his base. The more that Americans are thinking critically about their environment, the more likely they are to realize (not remember) that the president has very little to do with the economy.

This got me thinking about the goals I set for my own students, as well as why the University of Texas might require first-year non-majors to take a basic composition course. I investigated Romney’s rhetoric a little bit, found a new TV ad that advances his “Obama Isn’t Working” slogan and sought out the warehouse speech that Krugman takes him to task for. I printed out eighteen copies of Krugman’s Op-Ed and was ready to have “the talk” with my students. The discussion opened with a general discussion of what they learned over the course of the semester, which as a group they had no problem recalling all the various concepts. It was hard for them to contextualize this learning, however. Obviously, some said that it’d help them write better in the major, etc. But not a one of them could tell me why such a course was required at a public university, nor why Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin insisted upon similar programs of study when they founded the universities of Virginia and Philadelphia.

We started with Romney’s latest TV ad. The students had a lot to say about how it resembled a movie trailer, and how its particular unemployment statistics for North Carolina weren’t necessarily impressive (“that’s only the amount of people that can fit inside the Longhorns football stadium”). When we got to Romney’s speech, my students nailed most of the points that Krugman makes in his Op-Ed. The only point of Krugman’s they didn’t get to was the question of whether or not “the American people are forgetful enough for Romney’s attack to work.” My students weren’t eligible to vote back when Bush was in charge, and I got the impression from them that there were more important things in high school than reading the morning paper. And who am I to blame them for this shortsightedness? Romney’s attack wasn’t working here not because they remembered enough of the past to see its fallacies, but rather because they were thinking critically about their environment. I passed around Krugman’s Op-Ed and they saw that collectively they’d reached his conclusions. Now asked again what they learned over the course of the semester, the answer was obvious and apparent.


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