3.2 Language as Equipment for Living

Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt

Let’s turn to Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE), and the Manager for Blended Learning Success, Theresa Bell, at Royal Roads University for their insight:

Teaching: Never-Ending Learning

As explained by Elders Shirley Alphonse and Nadine Charles (2018), in First Nations communities, different Elders share the same stories many times with people as doing so gives people many opportunities to learn. Each telling will bring meaning to someone in the room, and each time someone hears a teaching, different information is added to their understanding, even if the teaching is the same. The same teaching may be presented slightly differently by different Elders, either by adding new information to a teaching or providing more detail if listeners are ready to learn more, so each telling presents the opportunity to learn something new every time.

Share Your Voice

It’s not unusual for students to feel that they have nothing unique to say on a topic. Students may also feel that their ideas are insignificant since they’re not yet experts on a topic. While the specific topic might be new to you, your writing is an opportunity to explain your relationship to the topic, including how your experiences connect with the topic, why you think the topic is important or relevant, and how you can apply the subject matter to other uses. You might share other people’s understanding of material, but only you can explain exactly how you think about it. The academic community is like a vast conversation with scholars bringing their own voices to discussions, and as a student, your writing is one way for you to bring your voice to that conversation. Even though readers may have some familiarity with the topic, hearing your distinctive voice through your writing will give readers the opportunity to learn something new.[1][2]

The above advice holds special significance for those who belong to Coast Salish communities. We would not presume to try and interpret these teachings for you. However, the idea that academic conversations are shared with learners, teachers, families, administrators, and more is significant for all of us.

In western cultures, specific types of knowledge tend to be divided into different subjects, such as science, humanities, and social sciences, but that does not mean that we don’t converse and debate with each other across disciplinary boundaries. The study of how, what, when, why, and where we communicate with each other is the domain of an ancient discipline called Rhetoric. Wherever communication happens, rhetoric is in play and is often cross-cultural. By “cross-cultural,” we mean that rhetorical situations occur between people of differing backgrounds and cultures (or contexts) and those backgrounds and cultures (or contexts) are part of every rhetorical situation. You might be thinking, wait, what does this have to do with writing?

We hear you. Here’s a quick example to clarify. In an article by Dr. Eve Tuck – who is Unangax̂an and is an enrolled member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska – and Dr. K. Wayne Yang, they astutely argue that decolonization is not a metaphor but an action or way of being.[3] The idea we want to get across here is that this article analyzes a key rhetorical figure, metaphor, and makes an argument regarding its use in particular rhetorical situations (by the way, you reading this chapter is a type of rhetorical situation). In other words, Tuck and Yang are making a point about the ways in which words powerfully impact how we think, fantasize, and behave in the world.

Rhetorician Kenneth Burke might say that the words and, in turn, the stories we share with each other give us “equipment for living.”[4] If you read Section 2.2 Genres, Stories, and Academic Writing, then you know that all we do is tell stories to each other: sometimes these stories are factual and data based (academic). Sometimes they are fictional (literature). Sometimes they are numerical (mathematics). Rhetoric helps us to understand what “equipment” these stories give us.

Perhaps you didn’t even realize that every act of communication, whether speaking, listening, reading, or writing offers some type of equipment. To explain by way of example, have you ever dressed as a favourite literary, film, historical, or video game character (aka cos-play)? Even if you haven’t, you may have seen fans dressed as figures from popular culture, such as Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Thor, or Wynonna Earp. This is an overt example of people quite literally taking on the traits, attitudes, and even appearance of their favourite characters as a way to show everyone: I relate to this character! This character gives me the equipment I need to make it through life!

A less overt example is this book. We hope that as you read it, you are able to take some equipment from this chapter (and others) that will prove relevant to you in your classes and maybe even your life.

The equipment you gain from your interactions with what you read and within your communities can help or hinder. Rhetoric helps you to know the difference between what heals and what harms and then make sound choices. Rhetoric gives you the tools to assess a topic you want to write about and explain what you think about that topic. As Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ) and Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE) assure you, your voice matters and even a basic understanding of rhetoric can give you greater insight into how your voice works in the world.

  1. The Manager of Blended Learning Success at Royal Roads University, Theresa Bell, has generously given permission to share The Four Feathers Writing Guide with you. While it is designed specifically to support Coast Salish students, there may be elements of the resource that will help many Indigenous students to develop a process for writing in academic settings. While we include The Four Feathers Writing Guide to mainly serve Indigenous students, we also recognize that Indigenous philosophies of learning and teaching are beneficial for all students and teachers.
  2. “Shirley R. Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Theresa Bell and Nadine Charles (TȺȽIE), “Share Your Voice: Communicate Your Knowledge,” in Four Feathers Writing Guide, Royal Roads University, updated April 29, 2020, https://library.royalroads.ca/four-feathers-writing-guide.
  3. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40, https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/18630.
  4. Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 293-304.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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