I'm a garden-variety academic liberal -- a black-and-white penguin in a sea of black-and-white penguins. I can walk into any campus or conference cocktail party and immediately feel at home in most political discussions about the economy, the environment, or the war in Iraq.
However, because I regularly teach an upper-level writing course entitled "Argument and Persuasion," I try to read argumentative essays from all points on the political spectrum. And so for years now, I have been reading the opinion pages of The Boston Globe, including the twice-weekly essays of Jeff Jacoby, its token conservative staff writer.
While his columns generally fill me with irritation, bordering on rage, I have come to believe that he is one of the best argumentative writers I have ever encountered. He has a masterful command of his ethos; he thoroughly establishes the credentials of every source he cites, and uses his evidence from those sources judiciously. His prose reads smoothly and elegantly.
A couple of years ago Jacoby wrote a column on the cruelty of sport-fishing that was so well-written and such a departure from his usual perspective that I was moved to send him an e-mail message: "However much I generally despise your political views, I admire you for writing that column."
He sent me a friendly and witty response ("Even a broken clock is right twice a day," he noted) that initiated a correspondence between us, and eventually led me to invite him to be a guest speaker in my "Argument and Persuasion" class that semester. I thought students would benefit enormously from the opportunity to have a working writer in their midst, one who could share the tricks of his trade, and field their questions about how to construct an effective argument for a broad audience.
On the day of his visit, though, things did not go as planned. I had required students to read a set of his columns and prepare two questions to ask him. I assured Jacoby that he would have to give only a brief overview of his perspective on argumentative writing and that the rest of the 75-minute class would be taken up with students asking him about his writing strategies. I didn't want him to feel like he had to do too much work in advance, since I had been able to drum up only a small honorarium for his visit, and he was driving an hour to speak in two of my courses.
Nevertheless, I envisioned a stimulating dialogue about the place of argument in society, about evidence and logical fallacies, and about writing.
For starters, Jacoby opened his talk by explaining that he couldn't really analyze what he did; he just did it, and left it up to others to talk about his writing. That was not the message you want to convey to students whom you are trying to teach how to write.
Once his introductory remarks were over, the students proved extremely reluctant to ask the questions they had prepared. The conversation between him and the students was stilted, filled with long and embarrassing gaps. Eventually it turned into a dialogue between Jacoby and me, since the students seemed to have nothing to say.
Afterward I felt embarrassed for everyone involved -- the writer, me, and my students. I was perhaps most embarrassed for the students, since I didn't want Jacoby to leave with the impression that students at my college are apathetic or unintelligent. The incident proved disheartening enough that I instituted a personal ban on guest speakers in the classroom at that point and haven't had one visit since.
I know professors who have had similar experiences with guest speakers, and who theorize that students find it intimidating to talk in front of field experts who might find their questions naïve or uninformed. "Still," said a journalism professor who regularly invites working reporters into the classroom, students "tell me they want to learn from people who are working in the field, so I keep obliging them with guest speakers, even though they sometimes clam up in their presence."
So in spite of student reticence, many of my colleagues continue to invite guest speakers to the classroom, and apparently do so more successfully than I have. The question becomes: How do those professors ensure that all three parties in the transaction (teacher, students, and speaker) benefit from the experience?
To help me think further about this issue, I contacted a historian who regularly invites community activists into her classes. Stephanie Yuhl is an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College and author of A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, an award-winning study of the way in which the city of Charleston, S.C., deliberately refashioned itself, in the first half of the 20th century, as a "historic" city.
This semester Yuhl is teaching a freshman seminar, "American Themes: Post-1945 Social Movements," in which she has two broad objectives: helping the students understand how and why people act on their values in social protest, and helping the students think about their own political consciousness. "Too much of movement history," she said, "tends to focus on leaders (Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem, etc.), who are undoubtedly important but hardly the whole story. I like the idea of bringing rank-and-file activists to class to show students that movements are not just about leaders and that ordinary people can, and do, make change."
Yuhl shared her syllabus with me, and the first difference I could see between her use of guest speakers and mine was that she had integrated several speakers into the course from the start. Their role was to help her achieve certain course objectives -- as opposed to my guest speaker, who was more of an add-on.
And her description of the preparations that all sides undertook for the guest-speaker days offered another clear separation from my experience. "I selected activists whose work is directly connected to what we have been studying historically (the issues, categories, mobilizing tactics)," she explained, "so our historical and theoretical readings have established a good foundation."
But in addition to laying extensive groundwork for the students, she does the same for her speakers: "I shared with the visitors my syllabus, assignments, and reading lists and spoke to them about the larger goals of the course -- to encourage students to reflect on what matters to them, to become informed, to think for themselves, to engage with the world beyond the classroom or college gates, and to not be afraid of the idea of being political."
With those preparations in place, Yuhl still allows for the class to unfold as it will. Some speakers prefer to run the class as a discussion, while others opt for a presentation style. One recent set of visitors led her students through a tax-policy exercise that opened their eyes to loopholes in the state-taxation system.
In retrospect, it never occurred to me to ask Jacoby whether he would have liked the opportunity to do anything other than sit for a press-conference approach, in which the students took the lead. I wonder now whether he might have had more to say -- or whether he might have preferred to moderate a debate, for example -- if I had given him a better opportunity to make a contribution.
In any case, it seems clear to me now that while a good class with a guest speaker requires plenty of advance preparation, the real clincher is for the teacher to create a tight fit between the course objectives and the speaker's purpose in being there. The speaker has to play an essential role in fulfilling the learning objectives of the course; if that doesn't happen, the students will have little incentive to take advantage of what guest speakers can bring to a classroom, and the guest speakers won't understand what they can contribute.
Guest speakers, whether drawn from local experts in our fields or from the constituencies we study, at one time seemed to me like a great idea. They can offer glimpses of the various realms that students are studying and may one day enter.
The danger in using them stems from the temptation to slot in a guest speaker when the inspiration strikes, when you are going to be absent, or when you just need a break. As with just about everything related to teaching, half-hearted efforts don't work.
So I'm going to lift my ban on guest speakers, and invite Jacoby back to my classroom. This time I'll do a better job of preparing both him and the students for what he can offer to our course.
And then, after class, I'm going to take him out to lunch and convince him that everything he believes is wrong.
(James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College.)