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)

Booth – Modern Dogma and Rhetoric of Assent

Booth, Wayne C. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. 5 Vol. Notre Dame Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974. Print. Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature.

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent,  Wayne Booth worked to deconstruct and show the incompatibility of motivism and the dogma of doubt with rhetoric and the finding of a common truth. At the core of the text is the centuries old tension between philosophy and rhetoric.  Booth analyzed a series of Bertrand Russell’s essays that illustrate the dogma of doubt to demonstrate its inability to bring people together because no reason can ever be “good” enough. Booth argued that based on motivism, where there are no experts because everyone has underlying motives that discredit them, and the requirement that Bertrand gives that the experts must agree on something for the opposite of it to be uncertain – there can never be sufficient grounds for a positive opinion.

“Russell had no place whatever for what traditional philosophers called dialectic, or sometimes rhetoric: the careful weighing of more-or-less good reasons to arrive at more-or-less probable or plausible conclusions — none too secure but better than would be arrived at by chance or unthinking impulse.” (59)

Despite Bertrand’s at times more rhetorical view on certainty, Booth asserted that Bertrand’s and other’s dogma of doubt and modernism has led to what Booth called a “befouled rhetorical climate” (99).

“…all three Russells in their different ways had told me that if they found it seeming right to do so, if their consciences told them that other men were flatly wrong and they themselves flatly right, if their visions of truth and justice were in conflict with those of other men, arbitrary decision about right and wrong could “rightly” be imposed upon others. This worldview of modernism has given support to self-righteous authoritarians of the right and to their spiritual brothers who use violence to attack the “rational establishment” from the left. A thoroughly articulated, seemingly impregnable system of dogmas has sliced the world into two unequal parts, the tiny domain of the provable, about which nobody cares very much, and the great domain of “all the rest,” in which anyone can believe or do what he pleases.” (85). (emphasis mine)

SN: A contemporary example of this climate can be seen in our current political discourse, for example, as  discussed by Karolyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in their keynote at the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America Conference where Campbell stated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertions about his opponent, President Obama, depend on public assumptions of the POTUS. These arguments, she said, don’t rely on traditional forms of argument or rebuttal because they are not evidence-based, but based on “belief”. Note these are not beliefs that are gained through mutual inquiry from both sides, but by the pushing of preconcieved notions.

Booth offered an alternative:

“My goal is (once again) not to establish a philosophy… What we must find, I think, are grounds for confidence in a multiplicity of ways of knowing. Such grounds need not be what was sought by philosophers who based themselves in science: a theory providing fixed and proved principles from which all genuine reasoning could proceed. It need only be a revitalization of what we naturally assume as we go about our intellectual and practical business in the world: namely, that there are many logics, and that each of the domains of the mind (or person) has its own kind of knowing.” (99)

Booth used Aristotle’s three proofs of logos, ethos, and pathos to elucidate how his rhetoric of assent might change the way we view rhetoric and argumentation. Booth suggested that this shift would not lead to a clear distinction between the three types of proof but a hazier one where “emotional and ethical proof will often turn out to be ‘substantive,’ and logical proof useless and misleading” (145).

Booth asked readers to “entertain” the possibility of a “social test for truth” whereby “‘it is reasonable to grant (one ought to grant) some degree of credence to whatever qualified men and women agree on, unless one has specific and stronger reasons to disbelieve'” (101).

How does this play out, however, in an example like the 2008 Presidential campaign where it was asserted and believed by many that the then presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama was a Muslim and somehow anti-American. Even “qualified” elected officials have also intimated that they believed variations of this. Is there there a greater reason to disbelieve them because of their prejudices and motives to have “their” candidate win?

Booth would argue against his rhetoric of assent being used for deception and manipulation as he asserted the goal is not to talk someone into a preconceived view, but to engage in mutual inquiry or exploration (137). For him, it is the joint inquiry that is most important and productive:

“The process of inquiry through discourse thus becomes more important than any possible conclusions, and whatever stultifies such fulfillment becomes demonstrably wrong” (137). Even if a committed doubter did not accept the “valued fact” of all individuals rhetorical nature, Booth contended,  the doubter could not avoid illustrating it as she/ he argued against it – “we discuss our doubt together, therefore we are” (138).

This all sounds great in a “good” world as Booth claimed that “rhetoric is a supremely self-justifying activity for man when those engaged in it fully respect the rules and the steps of inquiry” (138). But, as Booth well knew, we are not inthat “good” world; therefore, perhaps more than anything else, a rhetoric of assent presses us to change the constraints that hinder its fulfillment:

“A rhetoric of assent does lead, generally but firmly, to important political conclusions. Some of them will seem conservative, at least in our society, though in most societies in the world’s history they would be revolutionary enough: traditions of free discourse, of respect for persons, of civil rights, of democratic process become defensible in this view not simply as traditions but as the very conditions for fulfilling man’s life as we have defined it. But some of them are radical enough: for example, “capitalist” forms of production and distribution, as now defined, must be discarded, insofar as they depend on systematic deception.” (footnote 201) (emphasis mine)

“Don’t Sweat the Technique”: On Spinuzzi’s Rhetorical Research Approach

Spinuzzi, Clay. “Lost in the Translation: Shifting Claims in the Migration of a Research Technique.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14.4 (2005): 411-46. Print.

“Don’t sweat the technique.”  -Rakim

While I’m sure Clay Spinuzzi has never met Hip-hop legend Rakim, it seems fitting that they rendezvous in this post. Spinuzzi’s claim that as researchers, particularly in comp/ rhet and technical communication fields, our emphasis should be more on technique and its rhetoricality as opposed to rigid and limited views of method. In essence, he urges us to not “sweat the technique,” (Rakim’s terms) but to embrace it or them and employ as needed in response to one’s context and rhetorical situation.

To clarify, Spinuzzi makes his distinction between method and technique by stating:

“Whereas a method (from methodos, way of inquiry) is a way of approaching a problem within a particular problem domain, a technique (from techne, art of knowledge applied to making things) is a step in implementing method – an investigative tool that might be deployed in various methods.”  (413)

Spinuzzi uses prototyping as his technique of choice in this article and “translates” this technique to apply to four different contexts with varying socioeconomic environments, power structures, and goals. For Spinnuzi, translation is the process in which a technique is made flexible, while still retaining enough coherence  (416). This process elucidates the ways in which research techniques are rhetorical and “adapted to the locally grounded and contingent arguments we make, even as those techniques are presented as stable and unchanging building blocks” (413). Spinuzzi’s argument that research must be approached as rhetorical aligns with Johanek’s (2000) view that not approaching research in such a way “ignores the very thing to which we claim to be rhetorically most sensitive: context” (88).

In addition to necessarily being responsive to context in a rhetorical approach to research, this approach also allows us as researchers to reflect on and assert our own agency because we have to consciously and rhetorically adapt our approach for our research projects (414).

Spinuzzi uses Latour’s (2004) breakdown of social power and action to explain a research technique as a token that can only be “moved” and effective when it is translated to fit the new context and goals of the stakeholders (both human and nonhuman).

Lest all of this seem very abstract, the four case studies that Spinuzzi presents work well to illustrate the numerous adaptations made by researchers and other stakeholders in order to use the prototypes in very different contexts. While the details of the particular case studies are not particularly interesting to those working outside of technical communication, or labor movements, the take-aways inform both research methodology and pedagogy.

For one, Spinuzzi makes a strong case, in my opinion, for research to be viewed as rhetoric wherein the research components are arguments, but in my case he was already preaching to the choir. In this light, instead of learning research methods the focus should be learning research argumentation and instead of doing research to researching rhetorically. With this understanding, although Spinuzzi does not address this, we can view the composition process as well as the research process rhetorically. This reinforces the notion that research documents, although they need not be grounded in social science, need to be conceptualized and written about persuasively (Smagorinsky 2008) and that we need to consider all available means when contemplating methods and methodology (Barton 2000, Johanek 2000).

The key to researching rhetorically is remembering our agency as researchers and that our research approaches, must be just that– ours – because they in-and-of-themselves are our arguments, and that we make and structuring the arguments we use (441).

The end result of employing rhetorical research skills behind the scene, such as translation, is the appearance of a smooth and seamless research technique; no sweat.

With this in mind, I wonder why this rhetorical approach to research hasn’t been a given in Rhet/Comp?

What ideas, possibilities, concerns, and questions does this approach raise for the scholarly work you want to pursue?