Lee M. Pierce

Rome may not have been built in a day but had it been the Canons of Rhetoric would have been responsible. Invention. Arrangement. Style. Memory. Delivery. The five-part system is everything a model should be: clean, comprehensive, and infinitely reshuffleable through the centuries.

They also make a great personality test.

My favorite canon used to be style, the artful expression of ideas. Things like scaffolding and modeling were part of the puzzle, but, in the public speaking parlance, they were “nice” to have, not “need” to have. I just assumed panache would suffice. My evaluations suggested otherwise. To paraphrase the teaching misbehavior literature: charisma can’t compensate for fundamental disorganization. So, I have reshuffled my canons. I’d love to report that arrangement is now my priority but that remains a progress-not-perfection situation. Rather, my pedagogy now prioritizes the canon of invention, the discovery of things worth saying, which I also describe as interestingness. I believe that invention is the heart of education, from career preparation to civic engagement to self-actualization, because thinking (or speaking or writing or designing) something different is always the first step to anything worthwhile.

I scaffold invention-based pedagogy in three stages.

Stage One: students work in a team-based learning (TBL) format to familiarize themselves with key concepts. For example, when preparing for the epideictic speech, students read a basic textbook chapter on the epideictic genre alongside excerpts from Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which they learn how clichés facilitated the Holocaust. They think twice about the platitudes after that, I can tell you.

Stage Two: in groups, students collaborate on a project, often in-class but sometimes outside of class if the class is online or the groups are working toward a larger assignment. For instance, after watching a short contemporary film such as Thunder Road or SLUMFLOWER in Visual Communication, I give each small group a different critical review and we discuss which parts of each review are worthwhile and by what criteria we make that judgment. The “critique the critic” exercise instills media and rhetorical literacy while highlighting the rarity, value, and delightfulness of a truly insightful argument.

Stage Three: happens concurrently as students regularly submit drafts of individual assignments. Whatever they’re working on, from speech outlines and film drafts to research posters and conference presentations, shows up at least twice per month in a Google Drive folder to receive customized feedback, which is actually feedforward given that all of this takes place well before the student’s work is graded.

Suffice it to say, inventive teaching that teaches invention takes a lot of arrangement. Everything from the daily calendar to the feedforward schedule requires meticulous management. Which begs my favorite self-assessment question of late: what might invention-based classroom management look like?

I organize my course administration around the principle of choice. Students help decide grade weights, the scheduling of major quizzes and assignments, and how to demonstrate mastery of concepts. I wouldn’t call the arrangement a partnership—frankly, there are just too many competing interests—but it’s squarely within the realm of mutual accountability. When I can’t offer a choice, I explain why. If I find that a policy needs exception, I build a better policy. Last year, a student with a hearing difficulty needed their media close captioned. Now, everyone gets their media close captioned. This semester, a student with a cognitive processing difficulty needs a paper copy during the electronic quiz. Now, everyone gets a paper copy during the electronic quiz. Things like paper quizzes and close captioned media that once would have escaped my teaching radar are now the particulars through which I practice the invention that I preach.

Like anything else, prioritizing invention has its costs. We have to review the syllabus a lot. I can’t cover as much material as I’d like. I get a (usually deserved) tongue-lashing on my evaluations by a student who didn’t share my enthusiasm for carpe-ing the diem. Increasing class sizes and concerns for student wellness demand that I keep re-inventing when I’d really like to be resting on my laurels. I can come across as disorganized when, in fact, I’m hyper-organized but have a hard time resisting the temptation to revise. I have to remind myself that invention is often incremental, not monumental. Like they say in billiards, sometimes you just need to “put some English on it.” Same ball, same trajectory, but, angle it a certain way, and you’ve got something just different enough to matter.