A Communicative Approach to Literary Analysis

Dear Shane,

You recall that several years ago an eminent compositionist told us that our scheme of Communicative Education reminded him of a theory of argumentation developed by Michael A. Gilbert in a book called Coalescent Argumentation.  Gilbert argues that every claim is intimately connected to the beliefs, values, and feelings of the person making the claim.  It’s easy to be reminded of Habermas and his assertion that “validity claims will be redeemed through discourse.”  Habermas would surely agree with Gilbert that in a real social interaction claims must be understood in more than formal terms.  For both Gilbert and Habermas claims are motivated, at least in part, by the subjectivity of the speaker, and participants in discourse must take that subjective element into account.  For Gilbert, such consideration allows participants to bracket differing but deeply held commitments in order to achieve “coalescence” around items that the participants can agree upon.  Habermas, idealistic neo-Kantian that he is, instead holds out for “the unforced force of the better argument.”  And I have to say, a reasonable person gives up even a deeply held belief when it is shown to be unreasonable.  Nevertheless, Habermas and Gilbert agree that argumentation should be something other than a debate with a winner and a loser.

Neither Gilbert nor Habermas regard argumentation as a process oriented toward persuasion.  They both refuse to regard participants in argument as opponents.  Gilbert is more disposed toward compromise than is Habermas, for Gilbert counsels identifying points of agreement and disagreement by way of focusing on what people can agree upon.  But Habermas insists Read more…

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Wherein Shane Reflects on a New Job

May 30, 2014 1 comment


So, I’ve been a bad contributor. I’ve selfishly been working and writing on my own projects and I’ve neglected this one. That isn’t to say that the importance of Comm Ed has waned in any way. It’s more likely that my brain has been taxed on the Academic/ school front for these past several weeks and when I had time to sit and write, I wanted to write something else.

But the end of a semester is an opportunity for reflection. I’ve done plenty of that, too. I’ll do my best to organize this in some sort of easy-to-follow format, but I have several thoughts. Before I get into it, though, I will say that there is plenty that I like about this new job. Most of my colleagues are nice, I have a great set of program coordinators, an awesome chair and dean, the campus is pretty, and the town has many options for fun (many more than Covington). Also, here is a picture of my office!

2014-01-16 17.44.33


Let’s start here because I think this probably explains my absence better than anything Read more…

The Utopian Committee Meeting: System, Lifeworld, and Institutional Effectiveness

Dear Shane,

I know it’s your turn to post, but I want to reflect while it’s still fresh upon a recent event  that sheds light on the troubled relation of system and lifeworld.

I endured a very unpleasant committee meeting last Friday.  The ENGL —- Curriculum Committee was tasked with coming up with four-to-six “core concepts” pursuant to the “early-alert system” soon to be implemented throughout the college.  Each instructor will be required to enter grades at about three-week intervals into the grade-book function of the Learning Management System.  These grades, which correlate to core concepts in each course, will flag those students deemed at risk of failing.  The at-risk student will be notified via his or her preferred medium (text message, email, etc.) and instructed to undergo some intervention (as yet extremely unclear to me), by the Learning and Tutoring Center, for example.  The president of the college introduced the new procedures to the faculty by first making reference to student retention as a high priority, perhaps the highest priority for the college.  The early-alert Read more…

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Are Grades Coercive?

Dear Shane,


I’m ashamed and horrified that I haven’t made a contribution to these pages for, like, five months. The ball has been in my court all this time. We’ve gone through some changes, what with your moving to a new institution, but I’m the one sitting in my customary place. The issue is not my coping (or failing to cope) with change, but rather, the daunting nature of the question you have put before us. You have asked, Shane, “Are grades inherently coercive?” I would love to say, “It depends on how you, the teacher, use them.” But however intimate and humane the teacher-student relationship, both parties are functionaries in the educational system, and the system uses grades without regard to any personal motivation that might be applied to them. In a sense this is as it should be since the teacher student relationship is not “personal” in the usual sense of the term. However, we don’t have a good term for interactions of persons other than “personal interaction”—“interpersonal action” doesn’t seem quite right. The reason that we have a problem, the reason that you and I maintain (sporadically) this blog, is that persons can and must interact ethically while a system, being impersonal, cannot.


Read more…

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Shane Rambles about Conferencing

November 7, 2013 1 comment

Well howdy-do, Greg!

I’m finally back with a brand new letter/ post/ ramble. We (mostly you) have been writing a great deal about Habermas and how he plays into our whole theory of Communicative Education. This past week, you asked me to take us into the realm of practicality with a post on conferencing, as it was one of the very first things we presented way back at TYCA-GA. We presented on conferencing straight out of the gate because we both (I think) believe it to be the ideal teacher-student interaction.

Before I hit that, Habermas identifies the three elements of communicative action: sincerity, factuality, and ethics. I would say that these three things play huge roles in the interaction that takes place between teacher and student during a conference. I call on this old visual aid that we drafted about a year and a half ago:

Habermas with Greg 1162013 93402 PM.bmp

First, I think conferencing allows for Read more…

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Greg on How We Habermas

October 20, 2013 1 comment

Dear Shane,

I ended my last post with my favorite quotation from Jürgen Habermas, about how emancipation is only possible within “an already accustomed communicative way of life.”  So now would be a good time, I hope, for me to spell out for the world what you already know, namely how we have adapted Habermas’s thought to the educational enterprise.  Once upon a time we made the disclaimer in writing that we didn’t consider ourselves to be experts in Habermas, a statement that the critics were all over like white on rice.  So, okay, we’re a heckuva lot more expert about H than most people are.  What we were really trying to get at is that Habermas has been wildly prolific for five decades and has produced a body of work comprehensive as only that of a German scholar can be.  Moreover, Habermas has proven himself more willing than any other famous intellectual that I know of to respond to criticism and to change his way of thinking if it has been shown to be in error.  The bottom line is that we draw upon the work that is generally considered Habermas’s most comprehensive, the Theory of Communicative Action, and we employ those insights and conclusions that we regard as most applicable to education:

  1. That human social interaction is, at its most basic and its most extensive, verbal interaction.
  2. That interaction aims primarily at carrying out actions.
  3. That certain conditions apply if interactions are to be both ethically right and practically effective.


  1. Education consists fundamentally of verbal interactions among teachers and students.
  2. Education is oriented almost exclusively toward the action of the student’s learning.
  3. The teacher is responsible for establishing a situation in which participants cooperatively carry out that action.

Beyond his analysis of interpersonal activity, Habermas also recognizes in society another tendency for the mobilization of action, which he terms system.  Abstract, impersonal institutional structures and almost animistic “market forces” pervade government, economy, and culture.  Among the biggest problems facing education Read more…

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Greg completely clarifies freedom in the real world

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Dear Shane,

Your innocent reference to Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, which I promise to let go of soon, has gotten lodged in my brain, and I must disclose why.  I used to work for a high school principal who liked to describe teaching as a Sisyphean task.  He was one of those little Robespierres who wanted his subordinates to think of him as first among equals.  And he thought that existentialism was hip and edgy a good half-century after Camus.  He didn’t seem to notice (or perhaps to care) how unseemly it is for the boss to inform the workers that their job is absurd and that moreover they should embrace the absurdity of it.  What really pisses me off about Camus’s interpretation is that his recourse to individual or internal revolt serves the interests of tyrannical power, like little Robespierre, not those of the individual who is suffering through the absurd situation.  Indeed, factory owners should require workers to chant, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Beyond that, to any teacher or administrator who regards the educational enterprise as pointless drudgery, I would offer the following explanation: shut up, you selfish bastard.

I’ve worked in a factory, and let me tell you, if you progress to the point at which the work becomes drudgery, you’re doing pretty well.  Up to that point, it’s Chaplin’s Modern Times: scrambling to keep up with the machinery and enduring the wrath of one’s coworkers, to say nothing of the wrath of the supervisor.  But the existentialists are right that as individuals we are existentially, radically free.  As Sartre points out somewhere, even facing a firing squad you can always say no.  On the other hand, recognizing that a situation sucks isn’t exactly a soul-fulfilling anagnorisis.  (Anagnorisis, I state for Read more…

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