CGS’ Stephanie Byttebier Wins a 2023 Metcalf Award
Senior lecturer of rhetoric cited for using real-world examples to help students learn the art of persuasion—and how to think for themselves
Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, traces its roots back millenia. It was a civic art in ancient Greece, where students learned to hone their oral arguments particularly in legal matters. Rhetoric was taught at universities during the Middle Ages, and its influence can be found in John Quincy Adams’ writings about the new republic.
In her classes, Byttebier (GRS’04,’13) uses a rap-battle scene from Eminem’s biographical film, 8 Mile, to illustrate the oral society of early hominids.
“We really start to talk about what it means to live in an oral society, where there is no written language. Because once writing came along, it meant that language became technology, and that changed everything. It changed the way we think,” Byttebier says. But how can her students conceive of a purely spoken language when writing is already hardwired into them?
Byttebier found a way: “If you want to think about a particular subculture that’s still very oral, then rap is one of them,” she says. The rapid-fire verbal sparring at the end of 8 Mile gives her students a better understanding of the way language can shape oral cultures.
Indeed Byttebier has designed a number of experiential, approachable—and sometimes unconventional—lessons to guide her students through a field that could seem, at first, a bit esoteric. She leads a course in the London Study Abroad Semester, during which she brings history to life through hands-on lessons rooted in the city.
It’s these real-world examples, combined with her love for the discipline, that has earned Byttebier one of this year’s Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching.
Created in 1973, the Metcalf Cup and Prize and the Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching are the University’s highest teaching honors. The Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000; the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000, all funded through a gift from the awards’ namesake, the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (Wheelock’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor.
A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
This year, committee members were impressed with Byttebier’s “seamless integration of current events into classroom discussions,” among other qualities, according to the nomination letter from committee chair Amie Grills, associate provost for undergraduate affairs at BU.
Byttebier received five nominations for the award from students and faculty, including her department chair and the dean of the College of General Studies. In a letter to the nominating committee, one of her former students wrote, “I would go so far to say that she is the most influential teacher in my life. Her way of teaching combined with her endless compassion for her students is inimitable, and her passion for equity in education is incredible.”
For Byttebier, who joined the faculty at BU in 2005 as an instructor in the writing program at the College of Arts & Sciences, teaching has always felt like a vocation.
“To me, teaching is just—it’s what I want to do most. It’s completely challenging, and completely different all the time,” she says. “To see students grow and respond to these lessons you’re giving them, it’s…” Here, Byttebier trails off before offering an example rooted in—what else—rhetoric.
Plato, she says, makes an important distinction between good speeches and true rhetoric. Good speakers might feel that the audience is with them, but only because they’re flattering their audience; telling people what they want to hear. Good rhetoric, on the other hand, is more challenging. To deliver good rhetoric, one must plant a seed and encourage the members of the audience to think for themselves.
“You put the mind in motion, and you start seeing the wheels turn,” Byttebier says of good rhetoric and good teaching. “That’s what you want. You want people to be able to think for themselves. I feel like that’s my mission: I want to help students find their own critical voices. And when you get to see that happen, it’s just really, really rewarding.” This year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize winner is Karin Hendricks, an associate professor of music education at the College of Fine Arts. The other Metcalf Award winner is Joanna Davidson, an associate professor of anthropology at the College of Arts & Sciences. The Metcalf Cup and Prize and Awards for Excellence in Teaching will be presented at the University’s 150th Commencement on May 21.