I’m going to put the topic of Hitler and the Nazis on my short list of forbidden topics in my composition classes.
Not that I find the topic unbearable; on the contrary, there is a lot of fine fiction and scholarly work on the topics of the Third Reich and the Holocaust—but this is published work by scholars or professional writers, people who have bothered to research their topic and who maintain some rationale perspective on it. In general, professional writers don’t make ridiculous claims that Hitler was a great leader. However, nearly every time students are writing to the topic of leadership, someone makes this argument on the great leadership qualities of Hitler--and not just neo-Nazis, but rather ordinary students who clearly have not researched nor taken an objective look at the matter. If they had, they would probably determine that Hitler ruled by intimidation and hate-mongering; he broke all of his treaties with other nations; his own generals attempted to assassinate him, and at the end of his regime his country lay in ruins. By any rational measure, this is not great leadership. But that is of course the very issue—Hitler as a topic often is used to build an emotional argument rather than rational one. In fact, it usually precedes a rant that shows limited concern for the audience, as rants in general and “discussions” on a number of topics do. An essay and other rational, formal communication are the antitheses of ranting and preaching. However, a number of students persist in the belief that the essay is the occasion to spew their own emotional views on a topic. And when confronted, they often become hostile—or more hostile than they normally are—claiming their “freedom of speech” is being limited. How can this be addressed? Very carefully, but it is possible for the hostile ranter or self-righteous preacher to be drawn into the domain of rationale discourse.
Principles of Dealing with Hostile Ranters
“Freedom of Speech” is Relative
Students really know this, from everyday life experience. Yes, they are “free” to tell their girlfriends they are looking a little chubby these days, but this is not without repercussions: their girlfriends are “free” to end the relationship. It’s no different with written discourse. While students are “free” to rave about Hitler, their reader is “free” to put the essay down. Your classmates, having read the material, are also “free” to avoid you.
You Have an Audience
Many times students don’t fully understand they are writing to an audience; they seem to think they are writing in a vacuum, or to themselves or some extension of themselves. This may be in part the fault of the university: students in fact are just writing to “the teacher,” whom they may just see as a faceless suit. This problem can be combated by giving students a sense of audience by letting them know you, the instructor, on a personal level, a little, so they begin to think twice about ranting or preaching at you as they have come to value your opinion. This same effect can be achieved through having students work in peer review groups. When I’ve worked in a small group of fellow writers for awhile, reading and offering opinions on each other’s work, I begin to care about their opinions, and have an understanding of what they like and dislike, and I’ll think twice about gratuitously dropping the “F-bomb” in my work.
Your Audience is not a Captive Audience
Again, this is relative: your teacher is, in fact, somewhat of a “captive” audience in the sense he is obligated by his contract to read your work. But he’s about the only person in the world so obligated. And if your teacher only reads it because he has to, what about the other people who are not? Most audiences are not captive and free to put down the ravings about Hitler. Again, working with a peer group can help give this sense.
Avoid Certain Topics
Certain topics, like religion, money, and politics, are generally not raised in conversation because they cause unease. In formal, academic writing, what are those topics that not only cause unease but also just cannot be written about rationally? Often, they are Hitler and the Nazis, as mentioned earlier. Another topic I’ve discouraged students from writing about in an academic essay is the legality of abortion because the argument tends to be grounded in people’s belief systems on the beginning of life, hard to argue rationally. There are other topics that are best to avoid, and may vary from class to class. Brainstorming with students the topics to avoid, coming to consensus on them, and then making up a list to hand around solves some of the problem.
Support Your Arguments
Reminding students they have to support their arguments also tends to curtail ranting as ranting is used, generally, as a substitute for a rationale argument. For example, the argument “Abortion is evil because no decent person would ever do something like that,” is a circular argument (and the probable beginning of a rant) because the support essentially just repeats the claim: “Abortion is bad because it is not good.” Marking student papers with comments like “Support this claim—how do we know it’s evil?” can, along with follow-up discussions on appropriate support, get students out of the rant mode and into one of rationale discourse.
Pursue Your Discourse Goal
Most writing has some kind of goal, as communication in general does. It may be as simple as getting your roommate to Please Wash the Dishes, but it has some goal. What is your goal in writing the essay (beyond getting a grade)? If it is indeed to prove that Hitler was a great leader, show me—through rationale argumentation—his accomplishments. Don’t rant at me.
For various reasons, some students don’t grasp that writing is an actual piece of communication meant to convince or otherwise impress a reader and not an occasion for their own personal tirades.
Getting them to take a breath, come down from their soap boxes, and engage in rational discourse isn’t easy, but can be done.