The ubiquity of the thesis-driven, Aristotelian essay implies it is the only way to persuade someone. However a thesis-driven essay is combative. Its "they say, I say" structure means it spars with opponents. Its goal is to win, to defeat the opposition, to prove that its thesis is right, and alternatives are wrong. But what if being right is irrelevant or impossible?
Public, political, and social problems are often about people's conflicting interests. Solving these problems is not a matter of proving who is right or wrong, it is about balancing those interests, compromising, and finding common ground. The classic thesis-driven essay is not up to this task, but there is an alternative, the Rogerian Essay, a genre popularized in the 1970s by the college writing textbook Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Such an essay is great for a composition class themed around public discourse where solving problems is more important than being right.
Why an open letter?
By itself, an open letter trends toward negativity. If we sent students out onto the web to find open letter examples, as I recommend doing in my op-ed and call to action assignments, they would find a lot of personal attacks, slams, and put-downs. These so-called open letters are not working to persuade the addressee, their goal is to publicly shame someone.
By itself, a Rogerian essay can feel manipulative. If say, a pro-choice author wrote a Rogerian-style essay addressed to abortion opponents (or vice versa), all the empathy and understanding could seem disingenuous and calculating. After all, the goal of such an essay would be the same as an Aristotelian essay, to convince the reader to accept the author's position, to prove the author is right.
However, the open letter and the Rogerian essay are stronger and better together. An earnest open letter is an effort to reach out to someone and persuade them to take a course of action, while the Rogerian strategy is great for reaching out to opponents. Rather than a put-down, a Rogerian-style open letter is an earnest attempt at problem solving. And rather than feel manipulative, the Rogerian emphasis on common ground demonstrates a good-faith effort toward collaboration.
The open letter is a genre of public discourse essay wherein a concerned person writes a letter addressed to an institution, organization, or public figure but publishes it in a public forum so that anyone may read it. Its goal is to persuade the addressee to adopt a course of action and rally public support for that action.
While the open letter is a genre without rigid prescriptions, this assignment asks students to address two community organizations and convince them to work together to solve a problem. To this end students use a strategy of writing based upon ideas developed by psychologist Carl Rogers in which they persuade someone by first finding common ground with them. Rogerian arguments emphasize compromise, mutual respect, and empathy. They persuade by showing readers how their points of view are compatible with the writer’s perspective. In other words, Rogerian arguments are more like negotiations than typical arguments since the writer works hard to demonstrate full understanding of the opposing viewpoint.
The thesis = a proposal for collaboration
A classical, Aristotelian argument is driven by a thesis the author wants to prove. Rogerian strategy is an effort to resolve issues — it is about solving problems, not proving a position right or wrong.
For this assignment, the thesis should be a proposal for collaboration between two community stakeholder organizations. The proposal must be concrete and specific, help solve a community problem, require both organizations to compromise, and ultimately benefit each party.
The open letter should:
The letter should follow the pattern below. Each section does not need to be, nor should be, a single paragraph. This is not an eight-paragraph essay. The goal is to deliver information in this order:
Students educate the organizations about the problem
I saw many first drafts that spent a great deal of time educating their readers about the problem, as if community stakeholder organizations weren't already deeply familiar with the problems in their community. Many students could not break habits ingrained from years of writing high school expository essays. Their instinct was to explain, and they didn't consider how condescending that would sound to their readers.
Students can't think outside the Aristotelian box
Some students wrote an Aristotelian essay in Rogerian clothes, trying to prove a position instead of convincing two organizations to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. These students lacked emotional intelligence and/or moral imagination. They saw the world in binary terms, where people were either right or wrong.
Students fail to empathize with the organizations
To succeed in sections 4 and 5 of the open letter, students need to imagine themselves in the shoes of the people they are addressing. They must understand the organization's needs and interests as organizations — not their ideological positions or mission statements but their day-to-day nuts-and-bolts problems. What do they need to keep the lights on every day? What challenges are they facing now on existing projects?
Some students failed to grasp that they were writing to real people trying to do a job every day who face challenges. These students needed to do research beyond reading a website — they needed to call and ask questions, talk to volunteers, read the member newsletter, et cetera.
Failure to empathize with the organizations usually reveals itself in two ways:
1. Students restate an organization’s position back to them
When addressing the organizations in sections 4 & 5, students sometimes restated an organization's mission statement in an attempt to demonstrate understanding. They actually wrote, “As your mission statement says….” This demonstrated that the student had read the organization's "about" page, not that they understood the challenges people in that organization faced every day.
2. Students agree with a stakeholder’s position
When addressing the organizations in sections 4 & 5, students sometimes said they agreed with the organization's goals in an attempt to demonstrate understanding. However, agreement is not the same as empathy or understanding. Two vegetarians might agree with each other’s choice to be vegetarian but that doesn’t mean they understand or empathize with each other’s motivations. One might not eat meat for health reasons; another for environmental or religious reasons. Seventh Day Adventists and animal rights activists are both vegetarian, but for very different reasons.