Dr. Tim Doherty, English

Faculty: Professor of English, Director of the Writing Program, Co-director of the Center for Faculty Excellence

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In 1996, Tim Doherty completed his dissertation under the direction of Peter Elbow, an internationally renowned scholar of writing and the teaching of writing. Doherty’s scholarly interests focus on how to teach argument in non-adversarial ways, in particular focusing on rhetorical concepts such as voice, role, and perspective. During a sabbatical, he expanded his interests to include conflict resolution and mediation, completing a 40-hour course to become certified as a mediator in Massachusetts through Mediation Works in Boston. Doherty’s first-year writing courses engage students in composing arguments by finding common ground among opposed positions. He points out that we often use combat metaphors when we discuss argument and persuasion in college writing, such as “shooting holes” in an argument or “tearing apart” an argument. “The aim is to win rather than to seek common ground or find some way out of the mire,” he says.

Dr. Doherty teaches students both adversarial and non-adversarial strategies of persuasion. For example, his work led him to adopt the believing game, a classroom technique pioneered by Peter Elbow. In the believing game, students are asked to suspend their own beliefs on a topic and to argue or write effectively from the opposing view. This time-intensive exercise involves research, role-play, deep reading, reflective writing, as well as traditional argument. The believing game helps students see that language is marked by habit. “We tend to stereotype those with whom we disagree, and when in conflict, we have habitual ways of using language that often push people away because we’re engaging in monologue. More often than not, we don’t realize that conflict can mean opportunity rather than fear of loss,” says Dr. Doherty.

He promotes active listening and reading in his classes. “After we establish that it helps a lot to listen when you are in a conflict, then it’s a small leap to realize that that same stance can be taken when you read. You don’t just bathe your text in highlighter—you find instead those moments when a writer is revealing the real nature of his or her argument,” he explains.

For Dr. Doherty, one of the greatest things about college teaching is awakening students to their own habits of mind. “I like to see students with a suspended and unsettled state of thinking which they have to work through with others. Through active listening and the believing game, students have to stretch beyond their own initial thinking, often in playful ways in class, by assuming roles and perspectives on the edge of their comfort zones,” he says.