When the Thunderheads Gather: Ethics and Sophistry in the Writing Center

Technology, Uncategorized / Monday, March 19th, 2018

By Ryan Holley –

Ryan Holley, on Lake Superior
Ryan Holley is a graduate student in the Department of English at UW-Madison, and has taught in the Writing Center since 2016. His research focuses on the confluence of heroic frontier imaginaries and modernity, although he has outside interests in philosophy and classical literature.

“How pleasant it is to know these clever new inventions and to be able to defy the established laws! When I thought only about horses, I was not able to string three words together without a mistake, but now that the master has altered and improved me and I live in this world of subtle thought, of reasoning and of meditation, I count on being able to prove satisfactorily that I have done well to thrash my father.” —Phidippides [1]

Any tutor who works in a writing center long enough will eventually encounter papers that he or she finds morally disagreeable. The term “disagreeable” here stands for a range of rational and affective responses on the part of the tutor: on one end of the spectrum we might experience a mild dissatisfaction with the conclusions that a writer expresses on a subject, while on the other we might harbor the kind of ethical reservations about an essay that result in a churning stomach and gnashing teeth. While the former kind of response is more typical (at least in my own experience) and can often be put to rest with a deep breath and a thoughtful comment or two, the second can be one of the most challenging positions in which a tutor might be caught. Often it seems that there are no good responses, as we are caught between the Scylla of our obligations to work with the student’s writing and the Charybdis of helping to strengthen an argument that we find repugnant. So what are we to do when faced with writing that we find opprobrious or potentially harmful to the ethical principles we support?

When faced with a claim or argument about which I have strong objections outside of my writing center work, finding an appropriate response is generally a straightforward process. Reading, evaluating, and critiquing texts is, after all, largely what I have been training to do for the past decade or so. My study of literature, philosophy, and history have primed me to recognize complex issues and respond to them in an analytic way that dissects the problem and marshals a host of arguments and counterarguments to be presented in the most effective rhetorical fashion. To borrow the martial metaphor of the contest of ideas, my response seeks to probe the defenses of the opposing position in order to clearly identify its weaknesses and strengths, before proceeding to sap the walls with deft words and storm the keep through the force of my own argument. When confronted with a particularly disagreeable idea, polemical artillery may be fielded and no-quarter requested or given; when encountering arguments in favor of violent and discriminatory practices such as racism or Nazism, for example, this kind of mindset might be apt. However, while perfectly acceptable in the realm of public criticism and debate, this model is largely unsuitable, and often inimical, to good pedagogical practice in the writing center.

Writing center work is founded on constructive collaboration rather than destructive confrontation, and is most successful when carried out in an environment free from hostility. There are of course times when a certain level of rigor and challenge are productive, but the applicable paradigm to a productive writing center session is never one of intellectual (or physical) battle between the tutor and tutee. Moreover, it is a guiding principle that as tutors our job is to help the student find ways to best express their thoughts—avoiding imposing our own voice and conclusions on students is a core ethical tenet, and for good reason. We are often called upon to set aside our personal opinions and judgements in order to best facilitate the development of the writer and uphold codes of academic honesty. There is a strong ethical imperative that we do our best to improve the communicative and persuasive efficacy of those students who have sought our advice. Yet, in situations like those that I am concerned with in this post, the obligations that we have as a writing center tutor and the obligations we have as an ethical individual and responsible citizen of the broader community come into conflict.


A Classical Concern

Consternation about the ties between rhetorical education and morality has a distinguished pedigree. Plato (c. 427 – c. 347 BCE) wrote multiple Socratic dialogues on the topic (see, for example, Gorgias, Protagoras, and The Sophist), to which Aristotle and later philosophers were compelled to respond. In these writings Plato expresses a number of misgivings about those whom he labels “sophists”—instructors who are willing to teach the techniques of disputation and persuasion without regard for the safeguarding of truth and morality. Socrates, as a true philosopher, interrogates these skilled speakers and in due course reveals how little they know by identifying their linguistic tricks and reducing their positions to incoherence and absurdity.

Aristophanes. Photocredit: Alun Salt. www.flickr.com

Yet, Plato’s school of thought was itself not free of accusations of sophistry. In The Clouds the Greek playwright Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BCE), who is perhaps better known to modern audiences for his raunchy commingling of the politics of sex and war in the Lysistrata, skewers the figure of Socrates himself as a dishonest peddler of verbal trickery and immoral rhetoric. The play centers around Strepsiades, an old man beset by debts racked up by his horse-racing son Phidippides. In an effort to get out of his obligations, he sends Phidippides to the Reflectory, where Socrates (with the help of the eponymous divine entities, the Clouds) trains students in the art of persuasive argumentation. After a demonstration in which the personification of the Unfair Argument defeats that of the Fair Argument, young Phidippides chooses to learn the practice of sophistry under Socrates’ tutelage. Upon completing his training he returns and defeats his father’s creditors in court; however, much to Strepsiades’ chagrin, Phidippides then begins to savagely beat him without reason. When his father protests this brutal treatment, Phidippides employs his rhetorical skills to justify his immoral actions, before vowing to prove that he should beat his mother as well. In rage and despair Strepsiades leads a mob to the Reflectory, which they burn with the inhabitants still inside while the Clouds pronounce that punishing the immoral was their aim all along.

It appears that even when considering the founders of the western philosophical tradition one man’s philosopher is another man’s sophist. If not even Socrates is beyond reproach, what hope is there for the modern writing tutor for avoiding the trap of sophistry?


Two Worries

Here we should consider the fact that there are two points of ethical concern in instructional settings: 1) the need to avoid acting as sophists ourselves, and 2) the need to avoid inadvertently training students to become burgeoning sophists. The first worry dovetails with the preceding concerns about imposing our own views upon student writing. In such a scenario, the tutor uses their own skill in argument and persuasion to force the writer’s hand to the desired viewpoint. If I, as a tutor, litter a paper with questions, critiques, and suggestions that are designed to reduce the argument to rubble without concern for whether the writer has presented their claims in the best possible way, I am clearly in breach of the guiding principles of writing center work. Moreover, if I do that with the motivation of forcibly converting their position, I am engaging in sophistry.

If, on the other hand, I do my best to guide a writer to the most persuasive form of their argument even though I have serious misgivings about the ethical stance of the writing, there is a real concern that I am in fact merely training them to be a more effective sophist. If I also believe that there are real repercussions for making ethically problematic views more rhetorically persuasive (which I do), then I am culpable for giving tools to people who I know would use them to do harm.

In my experience, the first of these concerns tends to get more play in writing center training and discussions. I suspect that this is not so much a result of its greater importance, as it is a result of it being easier to directly address on the level of individual tutors. We can control what and how we communicate with writers, but are much less capable of controlling the beliefs and practices of those individuals who we advise. Focusing on avoiding sophistry on the part of tutors also reinforces the paradigm that when working in the writing center, the ethical guidelines of the writing center are primary. Recognizing that we have an ethical obligation to avoid training sophists, either willingly or begrudgingly, may create an uncomfortable line of resistance to conceptions of the writing center where the needs of the writer are the core element.


Where Do We Go Now?

So what are the options for a tutor presented with a paper that raises strong ethical qualms?

It seems that we might 1) lower our head and plow forward with furthering the writer’s aims for the piece as best we can, 2) engage in the work of being a “devil’s advocate” with the hope that the concerns and counterpoints we raise might give rise to new directions of thought on the part of the writer, or 3) politely abstain from working on the project on ethical grounds. Each of these actions has its own set of contextually dependent affordances and limitations, and I doubt that any overarching policy could be formulated delineating which strategy should be used across different situations. Almost certainly, that way madness lies.

Unfortunately, this places the burden of judgment for each particular case squarely upon the shoulders of individual tutors, and perhaps their supervisors. Perhaps the best we can do is to offer tutors as much flexibility and support as possible, and trust in their ability to make the correct call.

However, while the options for the case immediately at hand may be limited, we might attempt a broader, bolder initiative. In order to rob sophistic approaches of their appeal, we must alter the terms of the debate. In any contest where the primary concern is winning by whatever means necessary, sophistic argumentation will always be in demand. If receiving a certain grade, or generating popular approval, or beating your opponent in a debate matters more than a strong relation to the truth or the ethical ramifications of a piece of writing, then there will always be the potential for the misuse and abuse of the techniques and skills which we teach. Given that much of contemporary culture is framed in terms of a competition where the fact of achieving one’s aim matters more than how it was achieved, combined with the conflicting array of opinions and beliefs that students hold, it seems inevitable that many students will come to the writing center with ethical stances that run counter to the tutor’s and an acceptance (and perhaps even expectation) of sophistic training. If the writing center takes as its mission the practice of helping writers to achieve their aims through effective, persuasive writing, then we run the risk of being caught between the obligations of our position and our own ethical commitments. To minimize this risk, we need not change writers’ stances on particular issues so much as how they evaluate the relative values of the goals which shape their purpose in writing.

Revising the values which shape the writing process is of course a much trickier and more laborious process than suggesting revisions to a thesis, but a necessary one if we wish to avoid the ethical binds broadly considered in this essay.


Further Thoughts

The Thinker, by Rodin. Photocredit: Fredrik Rubensson. www.flicker.com

For those interested in the ethical engagement of content in writing, please see Michael Pemberton’s article “The ethics of content: Rhetorical issues in writing center conferences.”[2] For another discussion of ethical frameworks in the writing center, see John Duffy’s post “Virtues of Conversation: Ethics in the Writing Center.”

Have you had a particularly difficult situation responding to a writing project due to ethical conflicts? How did you respond? Have there been instances of sophistic practice that you’ve noticed in a tutoring context? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.





[1] Aristophanes.   “The Clouds by Aristophanes.” The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed March 19, 2018. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html. ll. 1399-1405.

[2] Michael Pemberton. “The ethics of content: Rhetorical issues in writing center conferences.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 53, no. 8 (1999). 10-12.

7 Replies to “When the Thunderheads Gather: Ethics and Sophistry in the Writing Center”

  1. Ryan, I so much enjoyed reading this really thoughtful post! I, like most instructors I’m sure, have struggled with this same issue. Here’s the worry that I struggle with most: On the one hand, if I work to help all students make their best arguments, I’m most certainly sending some students off to make more rhetorically effective arguments for stances I find distasteful or even immoral. On the other hand, do I get to choose who I teach and who I don’t based on their values/beliefs? What if a tutor turned me away because I’m writing a paper about gun control and the instructor believes that gun control is morally wrong? That doesn’t sound too good either. What I’ve come to is this: sometimes, I share with a student how their writing affected me, as a reader. In this way, potentially, students are learning more about how their arguments work *and* maybe I can also, if nothing else, humanize the “other side” of their argument. But I don’t know. This is certainly something, especially the age of Trump, I continue to struggle with.

  2. Ryan, thanks for writing this insightful post! I like how you’ve so clearly articulated some of the ethical challenges we face in Writing Center work by way of classical rhetoric.

    Your post brings to mind situations I’ve faced, not only as a tutor, but as a student. Negotiating ethical problems has become an increasingly important facet of my own writing practice. I am forced to ask questions such as: How do I negotiate between the universal and the particular in determining the scale of my claims? How do I acknowledge the limits of my own subject position? These are ethical questions that I didn’t always consider as a less experienced writer, when I more often thought about argumentation as just persuasion. It’s my education that has taught me to learn to be more responsible for my claims and more sophisticated in my thinking about politics, ethics, and interpretation. (Incidentally, my Writing Center tutors have been invaluable in helping me work through some of these questions as they arise in my current research.)

    At some point in the future, students will likely find themselves held accountable for the arguments they choose to advance. I agree that sometimes tutoring necessitates helping students learn to reframe their aims and reconsider the political and ethical stakes of their writing.

  3. Ryan, thanks for this essay. I have had to deal with an unethical or outright misrepresentation of information. I’ll give two examples, both are sociology papers. The first misrepresents a whole demography of Americans with inappropriate words that you wouldn’t expect in an academic paper. The second one that draws a parallel between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond and the actual conflict in Sierra Leone. On the first one, the student resisted every attempt to steer them clear from the erroneous claims and the terms they were using to make them claim. Their resistance was based on the fact that that was how their Professor has been teaching the topic in class and they were using his exact language. At that point, I realized it was just impossible to change anything, so we focused on making their argument work (while I bled inwardly). The other case, the student was willing to adjust their argument and they met with me twice. At the first meeting, they were utterly disappointed that I did not validate their argument and that I poked holes in their argument. But they took it as a challenge and worked on the second draft, which was a more sensible and ethical way to discuss a conflict that degenerated into a civil war. In these scenarios, altering the terms of their debate may also have factors like the professor the first student was trying hard to impress! I couldn’t decline to work with the student based on how I understood my job as an instructor. This essay is very helpful in rethinking different approaches to tutoring in these circumstances.

  4. Thank you for taking on this challenging topic, Ryan! You’ve created a very helpful framework for thinking about student’s work that we find morally objectionable. I tend to fall into the camp of engaging the student in conversation in hopes that they come to understand what might be problematic about their work. This has most often come up for me in the context of application essays (for majors, scholarships, graduate school, jobs, etc), especially the sort that ask for something like “how the candidate will contribute to diversity and inclusion.” I am pleased to report that I have never once had a student in the Writing Center stand by hard-and-fast views that were prejudiced. I have often taken the approach of saying: “Someone who doesn’t know you might interpret this sentence as meaning [problematic thing], but I don’t think that’s what you mean. Could you clarify what you’re trying to say here to me, so we can work on helping you put your best foot forward?” In conferences with good rapport, this might even conclude with: “You don’t want to accidentally come across as a jerk!” Students generally agree with this, and we laugh and get back to work on their essay. This tactic essentially turns the benefit of the doubt into a pedagogical method, because it’s difficult to respond to “People might see this as something a jerk would say” with “Well, actually, I want to be a jerk.” Nobody wants to be the jerk, especially when they’re applying for something important to them. And as a bonus, this allows me to point out what is problematic about their phrasing, and why it might cause (presumably unintended) harm, without calling the student out as personally prejudiced, and keeping our focus in the conference on the writing. Thanks again, Ryan, for inviting us to think more about this challenging kind of teaching situation!

  5. In response to your post, I am debating with myself whether this issue speaks to me more as a tutor in the Writing Center or as a writing instructor for freshman composition. In both instances, I’ve seen students working on projects that trouble me with one or two treading into reprehensible territory. Whether as a tutor or as an instructor, I do find myself working to understand the student’s motive for taking the position they take. In my (relatively) small sample size, I have yet to see a student whose motivations are bad even if those motivations have produced a questionable ethical stance. As an instructor, I have the time to talk with the student about their project over my course, and I have the flexibility to tweak my expectations for the assignment to push the student to grapple more meaningfully with the ideas he or she is targeting. I think this gets at the bigger goal of shifting how the institution values writing. But as a Writing Center tutor, learning the student’s motivation only goes so far because I have no control over the assignment.

    I will say that working to learn a student’s motivations does help un-clench my stomach after the initial read-through when the topic is problematic. And maybe sympathizing with motivation is sufficient for optimistically thinking that the student will wind up producing work we find more palatable in the future–even if we never see it. After all, a Writing Center appointment is just a tiny blip in their broader life stories. We can at least hope the motivation is a kind of foreshadowing.

  6. Ryan, this is a great conversation to be having, and I’m glad that you brought it up!
    I recall talking with writing center colleagues some years ago about this very issue. At the time, one of my colleagues brought the issue of social justice into the equation and asserted that, “When confronted with a racist paper, the most radically just thing we can do is to help that writer compose the best possible racist paper.” This is a bold (and controversial) statement, but I’ve found reason to embrace it. I like what it suggests about rhetoric’s limitations and what it assumes about the role of the tutor. I believe that even the wiliest rhetorical trickery cannot make good that which is bad. Regardless of how eloquent Phidippides’ argument for thrashing his father was, beating someone is not okay. Likewise, if we’re really helping a racist paper to become better, we’re most likely also helping it to become less racist.
    Additionally, as writing center tutors, our job is not to change writers’ minds. We can help writers understand how readers respond to their arguments (as Maggie and Leah suggest). We can encourage them to consider the limitations of their reasoning by playing the devil’s advocate as you mention. We can identify for them the social implications of their rationale. But we don’t have to change their minds. And I personally find it very freeing to be released from that responsibility.

  7. I recently met a Writing Fellow who needed help responding to a student’s sexist argument. The Fellow and I both saw many logical fallacies, and the writer offered suggestions that just made us scratch our heads. I think the core of the problem was how to address this paper without calling the student sexist outright. We feared the student may respond defensively, shutting down any advice on the paper itself.

    The Fellow and I saw that they could to address the argument through the assignment sheet, the logical errors, and our own questions of the text. The questions in particular would help the student think about how their readers would respond to the paper and consider the implications of the argument. It probably helped that the student essentially said in the paper, “I know this will offend people.” So I guess the strategies I suggested to the Fellow was to build the student’s self-awareness of their argument and take advantage of the little bit of self-awareness already shown in the paper. Then listen to the writer’s own ideas on what they had hoped to accomplish (the student wrote an end note saying the paper looked a lot different in their head). Finally, the student actually had written a few sentences that were relevant to the assignment. The Fellow could bring this strength to the student’s attention and then suggest they follow that argument, steering them away from the sexist argument.

    Thanks for writing a great post, Ryan!

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