Gold – Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges

Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins :Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. Print.

In Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947, David Gold re-historicized the history of writing in American colleges during the late 19th century and early 20th century by including accounts from three colleges and universities outside of the typical liberal arts institutions that are commonly included in such histories. Gold argued that including these other formal sites of writing instruction would provide a fuller and more nuanced history of composition and rhetorical education in the U.S. during that time period:

“I argue that each of the schools in this study championed intellectual and pedagogical traditions that diverged from the Eastern liberal arts model that often serves as the standard bearer for the development of English studies and rhetorical education. Furthermore, by emphasizing community uplift and civic responsibility and by validating local institutional and demographic realities, these schools created contexts in which otherwise moribund curricular features of the era—such as strict classroom discipline and an emphasis on prescription—took on new possibilities. Indeed, I suggest that the epistemological schema that have long been applied to pedagogical practices may actually limit understanding of those practices.” (xi)

Gold stated the three goals of the text were: “( 1) to recover important histories that would otherwise be lost and give voice to the experiences of students and educators of a diverse past; ( 2) to complicate and challenge the master narratives of rhetoric and composition history and the ideological assumptions that underlie them; and ( 3 ) to demonstrate persistent connections between the past and the present in order to help develop richer pedagogies for diverse bodies of students” (x).

To reconstruct the histories of writing instruction at Wiley College, Texas Woman’s University, and East Texas Gold analyzed archival  resources including: catalogues, course descriptions, student and faculty class notes and essays, contemporary newspaper and governmental reports, letters and diaries, interviews and oral histories. Gold argued that “What we have dismissed as current-traditional rhetoric often represents a complex of interwoven practices, both conservative and radical, liberatory and disciplining, and subject to wide-ranging local and institutional variations” (5).

One of the most compelling examples of how generalizing histories and theories of  writing pedagogy based on a monolithic notion of liberal arts education drawn from a limited selection of “mainstream” liberal arts colleges and universities can be found in Gold’s analysis of black liberal arts and rhetorical education at Wiley College, a historically Black college (HBCU). Exploring these histories that have been marginalized are important to the future of writing instruction, according to Gold, because writing instructors and program administrators use these histories to policy and curriculum decisions.

Gold argued that James Berlin’s (1987) taxonomies have been treated as mutually exclusive and discrete: “One is either epistemic or current-traditional in pedagogical practice and never twain shall they meet” (17). Tolson’s rhetorical practices, however, did not fit into any simple category: “…rather he combined elements of classical, current-traditional, liberal, social-epistemic, and African American as he saw fit” (17).

This example along with others from the other two institutions examined in the book, reinforce Gold’s primary argument that our interpretations of composition and rhetorical theory, like the theories themselves, are socially constructed, in constant flux, and must be understood in context.

Once again, an example of the importance of this type of contextual understanding can be seen in professor Melvin Tolson’s pedagogy at Wiley College as it related to race, power, and language instruction. Gold highlighted how Tolson would not have seen his prescriptive teaching of Standard American English as being in conflict with his opposition to white supremacy:

“For Tolson, language instruction gave his students the tools to actively resist the pressures of racism, conservatism, and capitalism. The question of whether the master’s tools could be used to tear down or rebuild the master’s house never came up, as it never would have occurred to him that the tools belonged to the master in the first place” (153).

He concluded:

“Our inheritance as rhetoric, writing, and language instructors in the American academy is a rich one, and the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are a vital part of that inheritance. Then, as now, writing instructors worked to expand educational opportunities for new constituencies of students, fought against what they saw as the reductive rhetoric of previous generations, and sought to promote citizen-ship through rhetorical instruction. This is a past that not only deserves to be remembered but might also bear some repeating.” (156)

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