Angel Footsteps

Stepping In

I have no idea which of you introduced me to the phrase “stepping in” in terms of composition, but I am stealing it from you and, maybe, using it in a different way. Thank you, though.

In class, yesterday, I used “stepping in” as a phrase for, initially, the transition from the unit on discourse communities to the one on the argumentative essay. As I talked, I realized that “stepping in” could do much more for me and for the students than I had originally imagined.

Angel Footsteps

By Currier & Ives. – Library of CongressCatalog: download: url:, Public Domain,

Already, I was looking to replace “argumentative” as a descriptor. I don’t like the hoary old debate model of pick a side, defend it and argue for it. In fact, I had just shown a clip from coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. talking over each other, insulting each other and setting up the cable-news dynamic still followed. I don’t want papers that follow such a model. Tomorrow, I will show a clip of Jon Stewart on a Tucker Carlson show more than a decade ago where he tries to convince the hosts that the model they were following is wrong–to no avail.

What Stewart was doing, I realized as I was showing Vidal/Buckley, was stepping into a debate where resolution seemed impossible and asking for re-examination not only of argument but of purpose. He was doing something that moderators on television could have been doing for fifty years–back to Howard K. Smith at that Chicago convention–but rarely manage. Generally, all they do is try to stop people from talking over each other, staying out of the debate but supporting its tacit value. Stewart, though he was not the moderator but a guest between two hosts, one liberal and one conservative, was playing that role–but going beyond what moderators generally do. Instead of supporting the format, he questioned it–and not just the validity of either argument.

What I want my students to do, when I ask them to “step in” to a debate going on in the greater society is to start by examining the debate itself. Who is on one side, who the other? What are the terms of the debate? That is, what separates the sides, and why? Both sides, I will work with my students to get them to understand, need to be the audience for the paper, not just those who might agree or disagree. That is, unlike Vidal and Buckley, the students shouldn’t talk past each other or insult those who disagree.

I realized that the op-ed from yesterday’s Times I was sharing with my students was a perfect example of the type of “stepping in” I want them to do, so immediately switched to using that phrase.

My assignment, for this unit, is going to be for the students to step into a debate with the purpose of changing its nature and direction, perhaps realigning the sides by showing overlapping agreement (a fool’s errand, generally, but a useful one for the classroom) and an understanding of just who the two sides are. The argument needs to be one for cessation of debate an commencement of a search for solution involving all sides.

This might be too idealistic–as Stewart was–for use outside of the classroom. For students, however, it can get them used to thinking about audience and the structure of the debate itself before taking one side or the other. It might show them that the very idea of “side” is artificial. It may prove a good learning experience for them.

I’ll let you know.


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