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Listening in Public

On the one hand, these strands of scholarship that focus on listening are predicated on the unique physiological qualities associated with the aural. In part, it is these qualities that make listening to someone different from reading a text. This is Ratcliffe's point when she asserts, "rhetorical listening differs from reading in that it proceeds via different body organs, different disciplinary and cultural assumptions, different figures of speech [...]" (emphasis added, 24).

But more to the point for our purposes are qualities that we discern by pairing feminists' work on rhetorical listening with empirical studies on listening from community-literacy studies. From such a vantage point, public rhetorical listening is:

  • ... a stance born of moral humility: Rhetorical listening invokes what Michael Warner would call a unique "stranger relationality" (74-76) predicated on openness (Middleton 170), particularly an awareness that despite one's best effort, one simply can not imagine what it's like to walk in another's shoes, but, instead "with careful listening" one "can learn to understand important aspects of [...] lives and perspectives" different from one's own (Young 42). Quoting Gemma Corradi Fiumara, Ratcliffe writes that such openness exposes the "'fragility of our [own] doctrines'" (105). In Learning to Rival: A Literate Practice for Intercultural Inquiry, a similarly open way-in-the-world is affiliated with a strong rival-hypothesis stance (51-53). This stance asks participants to seek out differences and gaps in their interpretation and experience in order to critically assess and expand their own knowledge of a problem. It means acknowledging counter claims that qualify and or set conditions on one's favored interpretation.

  • ... performative rhetorical practice: The point here, then, is not to mete out by some calculus distinct ways that reading, writing, speaking, and listening each affect public engagement. Rather, to insist on listening as performative public practice is to emphasize the discrete kinds of knowledges that are purposefully orchestrated within public life. Toward this end, it is helpful to evoke Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole's definition of a literate practice as "a recurrent, goal-directed sequence of activities using a particular technology and particular systems of knowledge" (236; see also Street, Cross-cultural 9).

  • ... epistemic. Rhetorical listening claims cultural difference as a site of learning. Even more to the point, such sites allow for precise knowledge to be constructed that may well not be constructed otherwise or elsewhere. Ratcliffe lays claim to this feature of rhetorical listening by calling it "interpretative intervention" (189). In "Intercultural Knowledge Building," Flower dramatizes listening's epistemic capacity when she documents members of a Community Think Tank co-constructing a working theory of welfare reform. For the community think tank, the point of deliberation is not consensus among group members but the transformed understanding of individual participants made possible through the structured process of collaborative inquiry (245).

  • ... supported by technai. Practices affiliated with rhetorical listening can be scaffolded through technai—a non-normative class of knowledge that, as Janet Atwill describes in Rhetoric Reclaimed, is stable enough to be taught yet flexible enough to transfer across contexts. Moreover, according to the Western rhetorical tradition that Atwill details, technai work to expose hypocrisies and rectify injustices of the system world. As such, technai assume a transgressive spirit that defies domestication and, thus, supports the transformative visions that guide both the feminists' work on rhetorical listening and community-literacy studies.

  • ... temporal. Different practices of rhetorical listening support different dimensions of public life within the rhetorical "life cycle" of a given local public. (For more about how chronos and kairos function in local public life, see Long "Rhetorical Techne" 24-29.) As the table below highlights, some practices of rhetorical listening are more attuned to the behind-the-scenes "design" work that helps focus and frame subsequent inquiry and deliberation. Other technai help scaffold inquiry and deliberation in the kairotic moment of public engagement. Even for a practice or techne that's robust enough to work productively at various points within such a life cycle, the intent and contribution that it generates will work according to what participants are up to at a given moment in time. (For more, see Long, Community Literacy 124-26.)

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