Rhetoric’s Changing Place

So I’m sitting here on the noisy patio outside the hotel bar and above the pool, working on a Shiner Bock and wondering if writing up my notes is really what I want to be doing in this gloriously warm and breezy weather, watching the birds — deep, shiny purple-black with yellow eyes and slim, curved beaks; definitely not crows (too small, for one thing, and the wrong cry), sort of like oversize grackles? — dive and turn among the cast-iron tables and hop and scold along the low-hanging branches.

Janet Atwill (chair), John Brereton, Randall Popken, and Thomas Miller filled a too-small conference room this afternoon. There were more than a few people sitting on the floor, and still more crammed in and standing against the back walls. On top of that, I think the room had the single largest proportion of full professors, department heads, and executive and editorial board members that I’ve seen at any conference presentation. The panel’s full title was “Rhetoric’s Changing Place in Composition and Communications”, and it examined rhetoric’s historically varying fortunes in the disciplines of higher education, focusing specifically on communication, English, and composition. The size and pedigree of the audience was entirely merited: good, good stuff. Here’s my go at trying to do it justice.

John Brereton led with an inquiry into the disappearance of rhetoric studies in the latter half of the nineteenth century. After 1875, the fortunes of rhetoric declined, and the fortunes of composition rose, to the point where composition almost entirely crowded out rhetoric. Brereton suggests that rhetoric was played out by 1850 because it had become a textbook-driven field, wherein there was entirely too much praxis, and far too little original rhetorical theory-making. (I wondered as I listened: how much is too much, and are the two necessarily mutually exclusive?) There is no forgotten great rhetorician of the latter half of the nineteenth century between Whately and Fred Newton Scott, Brereton argues, and none of the minor rhetoricians had what we would call a “scholarly” background, choosing what Brereton called “vocations” rather than academic careers. (Those who know my perspectives on class can probably already sense my hackles rising.) Brereton contends that an academic community of sufficient size and a contingent of graduate students are necessary for the development of new ideas in rhetorical theory; if all you have is freshmen, then all you need is a textbook, not a treatise. (Those who know John at Jocalo’s perspective on the diverse needs served by higher education can probably at this point sense his hackles rising.) Speaking of the “minor” rhetoricians of the late nineteenth century, Brereton says, “Rhetoric in these lives seemed to function in its traditional educational mode: forming and shaping character”, clearly using the term “traditional” to refer to classical Paideia. I might respond that there are other roles for rhetoric beyond the educational development of character (and this will become much more clear on Monday May 31 when I post my paper on Tacitus), roles that may even have considerably more political importance in their existence outside the academy. Brereton concludes his well-argued paper with the question: is our praxis today — as it functions in teaching and administration — crowding out the creation of new rhetorical theory in higher education?

While Brereton’s presentation was exceptionally well-constructed and grounded in historical examples, I found myself in strong disagreement with his perspective, particularly in his apparent assumption that the academy is the only place where rhetorical theory can develop. I think it’d be both incorrect and rude of me to go so far as to call it academic snobbery, but still, it feels like there’s something of an inability to see the ground from the top of the ivory tower going on there.

Randall Popken performed a close examination of Harrison Steeves’s 1913 composition reader, calling it a “breakthrough text” as the first reader designed specifically for the composition class. It was nothing more than a reader: no apparatus, no questions at the end of selections, just readings. Despite the fact that it was designed specifically for composition, speech teachers made considerable use of it as well, and it shaped their early pedagogy, especially in teachers’ beliefs that one way to engage students in speech classes was to engage them in the ideas of the essays in the reader. Some went so far to suggest that the speech class could be a locus of general education via the use of this reader, which Popken argues owed its considerable popularity to the tension it drew between the rhetoric of liberal culture and the transactional rhetoric of democracy.

Finally, Thomas Miller gave a fantastically well-researched, extraordinarily detailed, and extremely well thought out presentation on “Rhetoric in Composition and Communication: Historical Contexts and National Trends in Undergraduate Curricula”, which he’s generously posted online, and is well worth examining. What I’ll attempt to give here is a summary of the exposition with which Miller accompanied his research findings.

Miller points to the data that BAs awarded in English language and literature plummeted from 64,342 in 1970 to 32,254 in 1980, and suggests that the emergence of rhetoric at about the same time in English departments came about, in part, as a way to “diversify the product line”, at which I had to grin. More importantly, however, Miller points to the proportional disparities between those who go on to graduate study in communications — about 1 in 200 — and those who go on to graduate study in English — about 1 in 50, and then points to the disparities between the sizes of faculties in English (large) and in communications (small) and their inverse relations to the size of the undergraduate student populations they serve. In English, research universities dominate the graduate credentialing programs and the journals, and such domination skews or dislocates the discipline in terms of the emphasis on what types of classes get taught. (Check his statistics on the variations on subject material taught between two-year and four-year institutions.) This dislocation results in English constituting itself as a discipline more designed to feed into graduate study, and less designed to feed into English education. As opposed to English departments, however, joint programs departments tend to offer — as one might imagine — much more of an emphasis on writing and rhetoric. Rhetoric, in fact, is not really a subject of American higher education: it’s a companion to communications and public address programs, and a companion to writing and English programs, but does not stand on its own.

Furthermore, Miller suggests, the absence of journalism, communications, and public address from English programs is why composition and creative writing have nothing to say to one another: composition concerns itself entirely with academic discourse, while creative writing is wholly belletristic (consider the labored construction “creative nonfiction”, which self-consciously and adamantly implies that the genre is belletristic high art rather than the quotidian concerns of mere journalism). If we are to foster the growth of rhetoric in the university and remedy the Balkanization of English, we need to open a conversation with journalism, public address, and journalism. Aside from mathematics, English is the only discipline in higher education that has representation at every level of primary and secondary education; as such, it has the broadest power base of any discipline — yet it has managed to systematically alienate itself from that power base.

All in all, an excellent panel, and it left my head buzzing with questions and ideas. I’m enjoying the conference, and while I’ve met some interesting people, I really know absolutely nobody here, so I’m gonna go see if I can find somebody to have dinner with.

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