Power and Rhetorical Jam

This afternoon, my phone rang. I answered it because that is what I usually do when the phone rings.

“We just went blueberry picking and I thought of you,” KRO said, introductions unnecessary. “We picked so many blueberries, and I don’t think the peaches were ripe yet when you were out last year, but they are now, and oh . . . the peaches.”

KRO was my roommate when we were in college. Last year I visited her at her Washington, DC home, and we spent a day out in Maryland picking blueberries. We picked buckets and buckets of blueberries, so many that a good portion of my remaining days with her were spent trying to figure out what to do with the blueberries. Today, she and her husband picked peaches as well as blueberries, and now have a glut of fruit on their hands. During the fifteen minutes it took to pick more peaches than she and her husband could imagine consuming, the two of them also ate three peaches each. She wondered over the phone what she’d do with all she brought home.

I introduce this reflection by telling you about KRO and peaches, because just at the moment she called, I was making jam, a jam that is primarily composed of peaches. Making this jam was making me think. It made me think about the history of food, and how learning how to preserve food must have been one of the hallmarks of civilization. People have known for hundreds, if not thousands of years that sugar acts as a preservative, so it’s natural to use it in jams to make summer’s fleeting bounty last through a fruit-less winter. (Of course, I’m thinking of places other than my own home in lovely Southern California, where some sort of fruit is available all year long.) Preserving food allowed access to important vitamins and minerals throughout the year, which had to have made people stronger and healthier. Communities who were stronger and healthier were probably much more powerful; perhaps learning the art of preserving was part of how certain ancient communities overpowered others. In reading about how to safely can the jam that I was making, I came across an interesting piece of information from relatively recent history. According to Jean Anderson’s Green Thumb Preserving Guide:
“Napoleon is, in a way, responsible for the discovery of canning although his motives, to be sure, were less for the advancement of mankind than for the advancement of his own armies. With as many of his troops dying unheroically of starvation as heroically in battle, he determined to find a way of keeping them well-fed and strong. So in the early 19th century, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs (about $250,000 at the present rate of exchange) to the man who could devise a way of preserving food safely. The man who did was a French confectioner named Appert. His breakthrough discovery, as guarded a secret in Napoleon’s day as the A-bomb during World War II, was simply to seal food airtight inside bottles and boil it.” (Anderson 18)
Appert developed the water-bath method of canning food as a way to effectively feed an army and build an empire. Really, jam is all about power.
As I mused over the connection between jam and military might (and before being interrupted by KRO’s call), I began thinking about this upcoming school year. Thoughts about teaching began gumming up my jam thoughts, and I struggled to separate the jam from the classroom.

For most of the waking hours of last week, I participated in a workshop designed to prepare me to teach Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (AP English Language) this upcoming school year. I have never taught this course before; in fact, my school has never offered this course before. I pushed to open this course at my school because teaching writing is one of my primary purposes in life, and I felt that, although my school has moved further and further towards incorporating writing into every area of school life (and this is a very smart move), the school still had no opportunity for the students to experience intense writing instruction. Clearly, opening the AP Language class at my school is move in the right direction, and, despite the fact that I learned so much at the workshop, I’m terrified to teach the class.

This might surprise some of you who know me. You may know that the classroom has long since ceased to terrify me, and you may know that teaching is one area in my life in which I have a fair amount of confidence. I’m good at getting students to think deeply, getting them to write, and sometimes, even helping them learn to be independent readers, readers who seek out good books on their own time. Each year, of course, I meet students who challenge me in new ways, and there are the students who I fail to reach—no matter how hard I try. I do my best to keep up on new strategies and new research, and frequently talk with others in my field about how to continue to improve at my job. On the whole, I am proud of the hard work I put into my classroom. However, the AP Language conference has caused me to re-examine my abilities, and frankly, the prospect of teaching this course is giving me the willies.

Why? I took this class when I was in high school and did very well in it. That was so long ago. I’ve examined multiple copies of the test recently, and even taken a couple practice tests, and I've done well on them, but I haven’t been able to complete them in the time limitations that the test requires. I’m out of practice in taking tests. More frighteningly, I’m out of practice in the level of reading the test demands. In the workshop last week, we read Swift, Franklin, Douglass, and Hawthorne. I’ve read my share of Swift and Hawthorne in college and while teaching Senior English, but never Douglass or Franklin. And, college was a long time ago. I haven’t picked up a book whose syntax or diction has challenged me in any way for years. That doesn’t mean I read fluff; it just means I’ve been reading contemporary authors whose ways of using language are readily decipherable to me. (Shakespeare doesn’t count. The texts that I have taught in the last 10 years—Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet—are still delightful and newly revealing to me each time I teach them, but I’ve read and thought so much about them that there is nothing unfamiliar in them any more.) This fall, I’ll be teaching texts that are plain old tough. They’ll be new to me, and I’ll need to approach them with more rhetorical analysis than I have done since I took this class in high school 15 years ago. 15 years is a long time to go without practicing something. My rhetorical analysis skills are more than a smidgin rusty.

During the workshop, my teacher introduced us to many ways to teach rhetorical analysis, all of which were very helpful. But more helpful to me was her reminder of the history of rhetoric. The Sophists (namely Gorgias and Isocrates) developed the tools of rhetoric to help the growing middle class become participants in Greek society. Then Socrates came along, praising the dialectic and complaining about rhetoric because, really, rhetoric doesn’t lead to truth and it can be quite manipulative. Aristotle followed him and balanced out his ideas. He pointed out that, “Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic,” but he saw the value of each. Dialectic leads to truth, but rhetoric leads to power. Quintillian used Aristotle’s ideas and created a curriculum of logic that the Roman Empire used in each territory it entered. This curriculum gave native students the means to enter the grand political conversation. It gave them the tools to explain, persuade, and argue, to become true participants in Roman society. Rhetoric allowed empowered citizenry.

That’s it. I teach because everyone deserves a fair chance and right now, not everyone gets it. I teach so my students have the tools they need to make decisions, to lead, to make change happen. I teach to give my students power. 15 years after learning the basics of rhetoric, I’ve forgotten why they were important in the first place. Now, I wonder why I haven’t more thoroughly explored the relationship between ethos, logos, and pathos, and the connections between speaker, audience, and purpose with each student I’ve encountered in my teaching career.

Next year, I will have to read deeply, think hard, and work my ass off to teach texts that are unfamiliar and difficult even to their teacher. I’ll have to use strategies that are new to me. I’ll be in that place where real learning begins to happen, that uncomfortable position right on the edge of clarity. It is scary to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do. My students deserve empowerment.

And, I’ll have some great jam to make the difficult year just a little sweeter.

Rhetorical Jam
I devised this recipe came after reading so many other recipes, exploring proportions, ingredients, methods, and whatnot, that I cannot say it arose from any one place. In fact, I think that I can safely say the recipe is mine.

You will need:
3 cups of scalded, peeled peaches, finely chopped (see Note 1)
1 cup roughly mashed blackberries
1 envelope of powdered pectin
5 cups of granulated sugar
½ teaspoon unsalted butter (to help reduce foam)
¼ cup of cognac (see Note 2)

To make the jam:
Stir the fruit and pectin together in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a full boil, stirring frequently. You will only need to boil the fruit a minute or so at this step. Add all of the sugar and the butter and bring the mixture back to a full boil. This may take some time, depending on the size and shape of your pan—it took me nearly ten minutes to get it back to a full boil. Boil for approximately one minute (it won’t kill your jam to boil it a little longer), then remove from heat. Pour in the cognac and stir to disperse. With a large, flat spoon, skim off any foam that has collected.

Pour or ladle the mixture into sterile jars. Process according to your water-bath canner’s directions, or let come to room temperature then freeze.

This recipe makes a little more than 3 pints of jam.

Note 1: To scald and peel peaches, bring a large pot of water to boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. When the water on the stove comes to a boil, drop in the peaches. Leave the peaches in the hot water for about a minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the ice water. After about a minute in the ice water, you’ll find that the skins have become so loose, you can slip them easily off of the fruit. Slip the skins off and discard (or eat—the skins taste great to me), then chop the fruit.

Note 2: If your alcohol isn’t to your taste, omit it. You’ll still have a wonderful jam. ECG accuses me of adding alcohol to nearly everything, but I love the complexity it adds to flavors. Here, it adds a bass note to the bright fruit flavors.


Popular Posts