Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The Rhet/Comp Article “At Least It’s An Ethos…” picked up by Inside Higher Ed
I like my original title pretty well, but otherwise a much improved version of my recent post “At Least It’s An Ethos” is up at InsideHigherEd, along with an up-to-the-minute stream of commenters in various kinds of apoplectic states. God bless them, every one.
Many thanks to IHE for picking up the article, and for their invaluable editorial advice. Here’s the link.
Thanks for the link to IHE and the opportunity to see the way a discussion of (more or less) the same article takes place in different forums. I especially appreciate the reading recommendations: something I have found the Internet a good place for in the past.
I am interested in the topic for intellectual reasons and also because I have become interested in how writing is taught and discussed—both as “a consumer of printed material” and as someone who has participated in discussions of literature and other topics with people who at one time had studied the subject in college.
In particular, I have become interested in how formal instruction in technical writing (a topic mentioned by one of the IHE commenters) is now conducted. For my job, I often read technical books and professional magazines, and at times I communicate with our project’s tech writer more than with my own manager. I know it is not an easy job. She or he must ensure that the user and technical guides are correct and also thoroughly accurate, and is in general totally dependent on information provided by engineering staff. At times, she or he may be responsible for the entire verbal presentation of the organization to the public. Anything that makes the process go more smoothly is helpful.
I don’t think “various kinds of apoplectic states” accurately describes the full range of comments your article received. Many were measured and intelligent responses to an article that presents a limited perspective of the vast field of writing studies/rhetoric and composition.
I had so many questions after reading it - for example, why don’t you cite any composition theory that performs your characterization of it? Or reference popular rhetorics and readers that proves your characterization? Without even a brief reference to this material, your article remains at a level of generality that suggests your information is limited and misinformed.
Where have you taught composition and what sort of training (in terms of an orientation, pedagogy seminar, and peer advising) did you receive to introduce you to composition? I think someone or some program of study gave you a rotten, tiny apple and called it rhetoric. Perhaps you never looked past it?
Bianca, I’m delighted that you found the article and subsequent discussion interesting and useful.
Martha: what are all these questions about my training designed to prove? If you want to see an in-depth discussion of a particular, influential literary text, follow the comment thread down to where I’ve written “A reponse to David Beard, with a glance at James Berlin.” Perhaps that be of interest; regardless, these trends are much too broad for a text-by-text odyssey to be the correct response. I just saw a presentation at the MLA by Rutgers professor Richard Miller that recapitulated all of these problems—from the over-emphasis on the visual, to the abandonment of literature, to playing it safe with MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the Obama election.
That IHE comment thread was really cool. Other than Luther B, who seemed pretty sensible, I’ve never seen a group of people who were quicker to reach for assertions of authority. I mean, it had everything. Whines from someone at Irvine that they’d taught you better than that. Digs at people at Irvine for not teaching you better than that. Complaints that IHE shouldn’t be publishing such opinionated opinion pieces. Aggressive suggestions that you’d better get your act together if you ever want to look for a tenure track job. Passive-aggressive laments that grad students these days are so poorly prepared that one of them could write that. People saying that you shouldn’t write anything until you’d read the literature—what literature?—centuries of it, apparently, or at least a degree’s worth, except for the one person who mind-bogglingly provided a specific title with Homer Simpson in it in an apparently unconscious attempt to ratify your post.
Never having taught in the humanities of any sort, I have no idea whether Joseph’s specific points are right or not. I do know that this collective response indicates that something is really wrong.
Thanks for the quick response Joseph. The questions I asked were designed for me to understand where your ideas and training about composition experience came from based on the following assumption.
From what I read, I assumed your training was through or in connection with a TAship through a graduate department of English at a Research 1 university based upon your characterization of composition instruction and my own experience/ research in composition. But I wanted to verify this before I made the connection between your position (the program where you learned to teach composition, your status as a teaching assistant, and the resources - or lack thereof - put towards orienting and training you as a teacher) and your ideas about composition instruction.
I’ll be honest, I perceive your response as dismissive in tone towards me and the questions I raised, but I’ll play along. You say to me, “regardless, these trends are much too broad for a text-by-text odyssey to be the correct response.”
My first point: That’s not what I asked for, so please don’t dismiss me in such a fashion. I asked for even a “brief reference” of some sort of collaborating text in the field.
My second point: If you had room in your lengthy article to reference an anecdote on rhetorical composition’s instructional abuse and praise of Thank You For Not Smoking , then you had room for at least a sentence from a representative comp program or practicing critic in the field. Seriously, where and how often has that (or something like it) really happened?
What I would like to suggest before you publicly cast your glance askance at rhetorical based (Aristotelian or otherwise) composition instruction again, that you read about the many composition programs that already engage students in complex and integrated explorations of character, value, community, and rhetorical action. Ann Feldman’s First Year Writing Program at UIC is an interesting place to start.
I suppose the more rash side of me would summarize by saying: you’re just in the wrong place(s) when it comes to composition instruction and expectations, but don’t try to make it seem like it’s a broad trend or ridicule my field.
Sure everyone loves to get up in arms about an alarmist Stanley-Fishian text and that’s likely why they get published (and sadly, why people like me choose to respond). The troubling thing, though, is somewhat might actually believe that what you described is widespread. That’s irresponsible scholarship.
If you’re genuinely interested in discovering other possibilities (that may or may not necessarily involve literature, but certainly doesn’t elevate it), then let’s have a genuine conversation and I’d be happy to talk to you about how I use rhetoric in composition instruction.
If you’re really more interested in flaming or sparring across the blogosphere (which admittedly my comments have invited more of), I welcome an additional volley but will likely loose interest in continuing this within a day.
Alas, bianca, though I have done technical writing for a living (software documentation) and taught technical writing, that was so long ago that I have no idea whether the texts I used are current (if I could remember their names). You might want to google the Society for Technical Communication to see if they have any leads to good instructional materials.
My one thought on teaching writing is that there’s no substitute for doing lots of writing, probably more than the students want to do and more than permatemps and graduate students can deal with from too-large classes (more thant 10-15).
On Rich’s recommendation, I started reading the comment thread at IHE. I don’t know anything about the underlying sociology here, but I find the reaction bizarre. Joseph makes clear in his opening sentence that his target is Aristotelian rhetoric, which makes the patronizing comments about the existence of other kinds of rhetoric peculiar.
I do plan on having business cards printed up that say “Walt, cowboy/author”, though.
Walt, I think you’re right, but unfortunately Joseph’s target was not Aristotelian rhetoric. It was a few concepts dismantled from Aristotelian rhetoric for the sake of creating content for an undergraduate first year writing program. That is a huge distinction. Which is why I suspect the number of comments who believed that, if JK genuinely thinks he was describing Aristotelian rhetoric, then what does he know about rhetoric at all? (One of the earliest and most salient questions raised in the comments section when the piece was published on IHE).
Aristotle’s connection to rhetorical studies is complex and can help contemporary scholars raise an assemblage of questions. A really quick example of Aristotelian rhetoric that has become fundamental to my research is his explication of the rhetorical concept techne (it is distinct from Plato’s, and far more dynamic in its spatiotemporal rhetorical ecology).
Martha, as above, I haven’t taught in that field. But I suspect the objectors (other than Luther B) of staggering bad faith. Joseph is criticizing what happens in freshman writing courses. Of course that must generally involve a few concepts dismantled from something. My first comment in the thread here on the Valve said as much with reference to my science experience—freshman courses in the sciences don’t really teach science either.
I criticized Joseph for not being cynical enough, basically, and for taking seriously the high-minded idea that these freshman courses are supposed to do anything other than provide remedial instruction in basic writing skills. But the people objecting aren’t just being high-minded, they are actively pushing the myth. And the reason they’re doing so is clear, from a context in which they so often do things like rumble warningly about Joseph’s future career: they want to assert that their training is valuable and no one had better question them. Which I can understand, given the situation of the academic humanities right now, but which looks really bad when used to try to squash a grad student.
. . . they want to assert that their training is valuable and no one had better question them.
& there’s history and institutional double-dealing here. Writing instruction may pay the freight in many/most schools, but it’s always been treated as a low-rent step-child to august literature. & research in composition and rhetoric doesn’t have the prestige that literary research has.
So, along comes Joseph criticizing rhetoric and advocating literature. Sure looks and feels like the same old status games. And if the guy playing these games is merely a graduate student at an elite school, why that’s so much more galling. The noive of the fella to pull rank on us!
Thanks, Bill, Joseph.
The tech writers I’ve known have been among the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, but no department is immune from intraorganizational pathologies.
On the other hand, a couple of years ago I wanted to learn a new technologies, and each book I picked up was more awful than the one before. Then around that time Everything and More came out, and to say the least I was not enamored. That’s just about when I stopped reading him. (I borrowed Oblivion from the library to check out the stories I hadn’t read in their magazine forms, but couldn’t summon up any interest in Consider the Lobster—not even the interesting-sounding title essay, much less the Dostoevsky essay that had been circulating in samizdat for so long without my ever getting up the nerve to ask someone if they would make a copy for me.) It did occur to me that what Wallace was doing was trying to explain to scientific types (who were unlikely to read his novels, filled with interesting science-philosophical points as they were—evidently I’m an exception) some information from the latest research on writing and also on philosophy of ideas. Maybe I was wrong.
I’ve been thinking about the Gymnasmata lately. They are the series of exercises a student of rhetoric would have to complete to prepare for a full declamation. Joseph and I might both agree that a freshman comp class might work through the entire series while reading a lengthy work of literature. (I’m considering it as an exercise for my *Odyssey* unit.) Here’s a summary of them, from the Silva Rhetoricae website at BYU, which is an amazing rhetoric resource:
1. Fable: “Students were given a fable, typically one of Aesop’s, which they would amplify and abbreviate. Or, they would write a new fable in close imitation of Aesop. It was specifically recommended that students turn indirect discourse into direct discourse.”
2. Narrative: “Telling narratives was one of the first exercises in a rhetorical education according to Quinitlian, and included students retelling a story from the end to the beginning, or from the middle backwards or forwards . . . Sudents were to take a factual or fictional story from the poets or historians and retell it in their own words.”
3. Chreia: “(from the Greek chreiodes, “useful") is ‘a brief reminiscence referring to some person in a pithy form for the purpose of edification.’ It takes the form of an anecdote that reports either a saying, an edifying action, or both.”
4. Proverb: “In the exercise known as proverb students were to amplify ‘a summary declarative statement, recommending or condemning something’. This is similar to the “chreia,’ except the author of the saying is unnamed. Generic “sententiae,” or commonly known moralistic sayings, are taken as subjects to be amplified in ways nearly identical to those of the chreia.”
5. & 6. Refutation & Confirmation: “The exercises in refutation is an attack on an opposite view, typically attacking the credibility of a myth or legend . . . The refutation exercise was paired with that of the confirmation exercise, and together comprised the thesis or theme exercise, in which one argued both sides of a question, or in utrumque partes.”
7. Commonplace: “Commonplace is “a composition which amplifies inherent evils” (originally described as an amplification of either a virtue or vice, but in practice more the latter).”
8. Encomium: “Encomium is “a composition expository of attendant excellencies.” Subjects include persons, things (such as abstract ideas), times (as the seasons), places, animals, and growing things, either general or specific.”
9. Vituperation: “Vituperation or invective is “a composition expository of attendant evils” and is a companion to the previous exercise, encomium. It also compares to the Commonplace exercise, but differs in speaking against not general vices or types of persons, but a specific individual.”
10. Comparison: “Comparison is “a comparative composition, setting something greater or equal side by side with the subject.” Building on the previous two exercises, this is either a double encomium or an encomium paired with a vituperation. Students were instructed to make a forceful effect. Subject matter is the same as in the prior two exercises, but often included historical, legendary, or fictitious characters.”
11. Impersonation: “Impersonation or Personification is “an imitation of the ethos [character] of a person chosen to be portrayed.” It is comparable to the modern “dramatic monologue.”
12. Description: “Description is “a composition bringing the subject clearly before the eyes.” Like the encomium, the subjects may be persons, actions, times, places, animals, and growing things.”
13. Thesis or Theme: “Theme or argument is “a logical examination of a subject under investigation” and could be political or theoretical in nature. It is the first exercise to introduce arguing on two sides of a given question.”
14. Defend/Attack a Law: “Defend or attack a law is more of a declamation than a progymnasma, more of an hypothesis than a thesis, but borrows from the thesis the attempt to argue two sides of an issue, while applying this to a specific law, real or fictional. “