On the Rhetorical/Pedagogical Triangle Part 2

In the previous post, we discussed the rhetorical triangle, and came to the tentative conclusion that we can think of rhetoric as the exchange of power in the act of communication. We also thought of the distinction between rhetorical communication proper, in which such exchanges of power take place, and forms of communication which seem in principle to be impersonal or one-sided, namely communicator-based and content-based acts. We also bracketed for the time being the idea of the audience-based communicative act. Finally, we linked the rhetorical triangle to a possible pedagogical triangle, and introduced the idea that teaching and learning are a rhetorical communicative act. That is where we are taking things up at this point.

If teaching and learning are rhetorical, then, by the definition we have posited, they are about an exchange of power among the three poles of the triangle: teacher, learner, and lesson. All three elements bring a different form of power to the pedagogical situation: the teacher brings expertise in the lesson (both in its content and in effective ways of teaching it); the learner brings expertise and willingness in their own learning process; and the lesson itself brings its own inherent importance simply by virtue of being something worth learning. There is much more to be said about each of these, of course, but for now let us take this as a starting point.

Now, in a teaching situation, all three of these elements should be able to use their power effectively. The teacher should be able to employ their expertise in order to help the learner with the lesson; the learner should be able to employ their own skills to meet the teacher’s unpacking of the lesson; and the lesson should be able to stand forth in its own significance and meaning to both of them. In an effective teaching situation, this is surely what happens. A teaching situation like this allows for dynamic exchange among communicators, attentiveness to the lesson and its elements, and ethical scholarly discussion in the classroom.

In an ineffective situation, one or more of these elements is unable to use their power. Either the teacher cannot effectively use their skills; or the learner is not able to effectively use theirs; or the lesson itself appears opaque or insignificant. In the worst scenarios, all three fail. Once can easily see how these situations would be ineffective; they would also be unethical, because one pole would dominate in power over the other two, and in practice, in the classroom, that dominant pole will rarely be the learner.

We can see, moreover, that versions of these failures also map onto the non-rhetorical acts of communication we mentioned in part one. A learner or a lesson, or both, may be stifled by a teacher-weighted scenario, in which the teacher works by diktat; a teacher may fail in effectiveness because of an inappropriate lesson, or because of unengaged or hostile learners; a lesson may appear trivial because of the failure of the people involved.

In all of these scenarios, the responsibility is most clearly with the teacher to get things right, just as in other rhetorical situations it is the rhetor who must shape the act of communication to the moment. Yet the other two poles have active roles to play, again, as with other rhetorical situations. Everyone involved has an ethical role to play, but most especially the teacher, who should not overly weight themselves.

At this point, one might wonder whether, when we speak of a teacher-weighted scenario, one that stifles the lesson and the learners, we are speaking simply the traditional lecture. One would be excused for thinking so; the lecture has gotten a terrible reputation lately, not just for being ineffective, but for being unethical. Much of the literature on active learning, when it speaks of lectures, would lead us to think that these two situations — the lecture and the diktat — are just the same as each other. A common definition of lecturing in active-learning discourse is “continuous exposition by the teacher,” which is rather unambiguous in its negative attitude about lecturing. The by-now-cliched active-learning expression, “don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side,” similarly posits the lecturer as acting out of ego rather than helpfulness.

As a person who has spent a great deal of time and energy exploring and practicing active learning, and the development of active learning spaces, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of active learning, and am well aware of the limitations of the lecture. But must this polarity between the two always necessarily be the case? Is it possible, at least in principle, for a lecture to represent a rhetorical, active and equitable exchange of power among the three poles of the triangle? And is it also possible for active learning techniques, instead to represent a distortion and failure of such exchange? Or, is the latter always to be preferred to the former all other things being equal, as much of the literature seems to indicate?