A podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have defined the history of rhetoric.
A round-up of the Spring 2020 issue of Rhetoric Society Quartley
James Berlin “Contemporary Composition: the Major Pedagogical Theories.”
Some time ago, I was asked by listener Sarah Rumsey to do a podcast on composition theory. That’s a doozy of a topic, so I read a lot, I poked around, even pulled together a couple drafts, but couldn’t find the balance of breadth and depth to do this subject justice. So I gave up.
Ah, clever listener, you know I didn’t really give up, because this is Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history and I am Mary Hedengren and instead of trying to capture the entire depth of rhetorical theory thought I could just rip off someone who did.
Granted, the “did” in this case happened way back in 1982, when rhetoric and composition was still a young discipline, but the “someone” is James A Berlin, namesake of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Jim Berlin pub crawl. In addition to, I guess, being a man who could hold his liquor, Berlin was a composition historian and in 1982, he took stock of the current field of composition in an article titled “Contemporary Composition: the Major Pedagogical Theories.”
Now before I dive into this major theoretical typology, let me say that the article has been accused of being a little simplistic and a little...strawman-ish. Berlin himself acknowledges his bias in the article, stating, “My reasons for presenting this analysis are not altogether disinterested. I am convinced that the pedagogical approach of the New Rhetoricians is the most intelligent and most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interests of our students” (766). Well, in that case, why even worry about other theories? And why should Sarah be taught all of these competing pedagogical theories in her composition classes? Why not just settle down with one intelligent and practical one without holding up competing theories? Won’t that just confuse would-be instructors and, worse, muddle students who must adapt from one instructor’s theory to another as they progress through their classes: freshman comp with a classicist and advanced writing with an expressionist?
Well, for starters, you might not agree with Berlin’s conclusions about which is best. And, even is so, Berlin fears that most people don’t think consciously about their overall theory of writing and learning at all “ many teachers,” he says, “(and I suspect most) look upon their vocations as the imparting of a largely mechanical skill, important only because it serves students in getting them through school and in advancing them in their professions. This essay will argue that writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task” (766).
Okay then, what are the theories Berlin posits for how “writer, reality, audience and language--are envisioned”(765)?
First are the Neo-Aristotelians or Classicists. You might suspect, they echo the philosophies of Aristotle, but Berlin claims that actually they are “opposed to his system in every sense” (767). Okay, then, what does Aristotle posit and what do these wannabes do? Aristotle, if you remember from that famous fresco by Rafael, is the one pointing down to the earth. Berlin describes Aristotle’s view that reality can be “known and communicated with language serving as the unproblematic medium os discourse. There is an uncomplicated correspondence between the sign and the thing” (767). Aristotle’s rhetorical writings are among the most complete we have from the ancient world and emphasize reasoning, but also acknowledge that sometimes it takes a little appeal to emotion, too, to get the job done.
Then Berlin says, in essence, okay, but what those so-called Neo-Aristotelians actually do is Current-traditional or Positivist. [For those keeping track at home, this means that there
The Rise of Writing (Deborah Brandt)
Welcome to Mere R the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary H and if you grew up in the eighties and nineties, like I did, then you might remember a series of posters in your school and public library. Celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker,A-Rod and, of course, Lavar Burton would be posed with a book, smiling, encouraging you to read. They were all readers, and so should you, because being a reader was a worthy identity.
Deborah Brandt, in her decades of interviews with people of all walks of life, found that being a reader had very different connotations than being a writer. Readers were feted, writers were suspect; readers had clubs, writers had isolation; reading was receptive, writing was productive. However, in Brandt’s latest book, The Rise of Writing, she finds something changing--our definition of literacy is swinging from readers to writers.
The subtitle of her book is redefining mass literacy, and that’s just what her interviews reveal--that writing, not reading, is becoming the definition of literacy. She gives a definition of what this looks like:
“Writing based literacy is a literacy driven primarily through engagement with and orientation toward writing instead of reading--a literacy that develops by way of emphasizing and embracing the social role of the writer rather than the social role of the reader” (91).
Writing-based literacy is necessary as an increasing number of jobs in both the public and private sectors require writing as part of the work. Often the writer-employee is paid as a condition of the employment, rather than given authorial rights. Instead of getting a byline and a royalty credit, people like lawyers and government officials write in the voice of their company or office. As legal voices have claims “once a person is employed to say what she does, the speech usually represent not her own self-expression but, at best, the expression of the employer” (qtd. 23)This is not a small group--More than a third of the writers Brandt interviewed ghost write, usually for their superiors (32-33). These writer-workers must compose with a borrowed identity (48) One government writer says “I try to be a reasonable voice of the institution. I can’t got outside my role” (75).
However, it’s one thing to put off your authorship when writing on the job, but increasingly people associated with organizations must continue to restrict their writing off the job.Brandt says that the government “readily recognized the intimate intermingling of writer subjectivity with institutional mission as the dangerous mix that potentially undermines the government’s voice when employees speak out in the public domain and political arena, Yet they remain incurious about how this dangerous mix affects the citizen voices of millions of Americans” (87).
“When it comes to writing, people’s expressive voices seem inevitably entangled with interests and liabilities of the organizations that employ them--and often cannot be comfortable extricated even off the job” (164). She calls this the “residue of authorship” (27)--the way you change after putting on the writing mask of the job.
A writer at a non-partisan agency explains “in terms of our private lives as non-partisan legislative service agency employees, it is made clear to everyone that there are strict boundaries that we cannot cross. You have to agree to this.You are basically giving up your constitutional rights. We discourage any type of external correspondence that would be published anywhere” (82).
Writing isn’t just an anonymous workplace practice in this new literacy, though. It’s also a hyper personalized practice. Brandt interviewed young people about their writing practices and found that writing was actively enjo
The Other Eight Attic Orators: Antiphon
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like you to think a little about the types of writing you’ve done in the past, oh, let us say, year. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably written breezy email, stern syllabi, obscure academic texts and pun-based posts on Reddit that didn’t get nearly the number of upvotes as they deserve. Now what if a random, oh, say 12% of what you wrote was preserved and no one who knew you was around to testify you wrote it all? What would people think about your writing style? About your history? Would they even know you who were you?
This is precisely the mystery behind today’s Other Eight Attic Orator, Antiphon of Rhamnus. Like many of us, Antiphon may have written a variety of texts. He was a logographer, one of those professional legal speechwriters, so he probably wrote dozens of defenses for the rich and powerful in his social circle. He also attracted followers and students, so he wrote examples for them, imaginary legal cases with evenly balanced sides and arguments in weighted antithesis. He may have even written a treatise On Rhetoric, but we don’t have it, because, remember? Most of your writings--gone. We only have rumor of Antiphon’s rhetoric text. He also maybe wrote some abstract sophistic texts, On Truth and On Concord, which sure don’t sound like the pragmatic legal texts we know were his. Antiphon also lived in the real world, which, during this stormy period of Athenian politics, included a lot a hairy situations where Antiphon would have to rhetoric for his life.
All of this makes it hard to sort out what Antiphon really wrote and what, if any, style you would attribute to him--is he a cut-and-dry type-A arranger like his sample cases sound or did he play fast and loose with the traditional four parts of a speech like his court cases? He looks like both. Take those traditional four parts of a speech--prologue, narrative, proof or argument and epilogue, or in other words, set the stage, tell the story, supply the evidence, and sum it all up.
In one speech Antiphon goes on and on in the narrative. Why? Because he’s writing a speech for the prosecution and so it’s his job to plaint what happened. In this case, it’s about a step-mother poisoning a father, so it’s a very lurid narrative, too. The step-mother tricks a family’s friend’s mistress into thinking a poison was a love potion. “When they had finished dinner, ...they naturally began pouring libations...But while Philoneus’ mistress was pouring the libations...she was pouring in the drug. And she thought she would be clever and put more into Philoneus’ cup, on the theory that if she gave him more, he would love her more. She didn’t realize she had been deceived by my stepmother until the evil was already done.... When the men had poured out the libations, each took hold of his own murderer and drank it down--his last drink” (19-21). I mean--wow! That is shocking stuff. Of course the jury wants to hear more of it. The defense’s excuses of why she did it is almost irrelevant when there’s such a vivid narration. Even though Antiphon says he will “try to relate the rest of the story about giving the drug as briefly as possible,” (13) he knows that the story is the most convincing part and aside from this allegation...there’s not really a lot of evidence. In fact, not only is the evidence sparse, but the narrative is almost entirely fabricated. How could the plaintiff or Antiphon know what the cloistered women said to each other behind closed doors? How could he know what they were thinking when they poured the drinks? But with such a robust narration section, the argument looks compelling. This kind of playing with the order is seen
The Meaningful Writing Project
Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history
It’s the start of another semester, which, for me, means a season of wonder. I wonder about who my students will be. I wonder whether my schedule will be crushingly busy. Mostly, though, I wonder how my students will react to the syllabi and assignments that I have lovingly crafted. Will they understand the instructions? Will they learn what I hope they will? Will they find it meaningful?
Many compositionists have wondered these same questions and have argued about what kinds of assignments are best for students--digital or analog? Open-ended or directed? Reflective or projective? The authors of the Meaningful Writing Project,Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, Neal Lerner , had similar questions. But instead of pontificating, they just asked the students themselves.
And, boy howdy, did they! They surveyed students at a varied of schools--big state, small private, research and community college--and asked them which (if any) of their writing projects had been the most “meaningful” for them. What they found surprised them, and it surprised me too.
The researchers were expecting on finding a small cohort of “meaningful project” professors who had skillfully crafted assignments that were more meaningful to their students, but instead they found that the meaningful projects were scattered across instructors. Some of the instructors were veterans, some were novices; some were full professors and some were adjuncts. There weren’t clear patterns in who assigned meaningful projects. There was also no pattern on where these meaning projects were taking place. Meaningful writing projects occurred in big classes and small, required courses and capstones and in no courses at all. This might seem like a null result--what can we say about meaningful writing projects if any sort of instructor can assign them in any sort of class?
Again, the answer is in listening to the students. The authors found that these projects focus on the past (students' personal connection and previous experience) and the future (application to the students' sense of their future selves). These projects recognize that education doesn’t happen in discrete modules, but builds upon past lived experience and anticipates the classes, jobs and lifestyles students will eventually enter.
Almost 70% of the students in the study said that the writing project was related to what they expect to do in the future, usually related to their prospective jobs (41). They said things like “”As a teacher, I must write lesson plans that are creative,” “As a physician assistant I will have to write referral letters,” and “As a career artist I..must be able to write about my work when I submit it to juried exhibitions” (41). Recognizing connections to their future lives envigorates writing for these students. The past also matters, even when the comparison to the past was uneven. One participant, Leah, described her previous writing experience as “neutral.”
Leah also gave a good insight into the importance of choice in writing projects.The authors note that the “balance between allow and require once again seems key…[because] Leah’s experiences up tot his point were too close to the require end o the continuum with not enough allow” (48). Accordingly, student choice means a lot--encouraging students to delve into personal interest and to feel "invited and encouraged" (133). This is always a hard balance for me too--do I let my students choose to write on whatever topic they want, assuming that they will write with more passion about the topic of their choice? Or do they not have any particular passion yet, and fall back on standard fare: gun control, abortion, illegal immigration. Similia
Steven Mailloux--Rhetorical Power
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol this holiday season because I’m playing Mrs. Crachit in a community theatre production. And wow. There is a story behind that. But becaue I was interested in The christmas carol, so I started reading The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford’s history of Dickens’s masterpeice. I was surprised to hear how A Christmas Carol had solidified Christmas as we know it, a home-and-family holiday rather than a racacus drunken orgy of disrule. Yeah, Christmas used to be like that. In fact, there was a debate about Christmas raging over several centuries when Scrooge came on the scene. After Dickens, though, industrialists started giving their employees Christmas Day off, and everyone started sending their workers the ubiquitous Christmas turkey. Robert Louis Stevenson, upon reading Dickens’s Christmas Carol first cried his eyes out and then committed to donate money to the poor. Even Dickens’s best frienemy and critic, William Makepeace Thackery, was deeply moved by it. Dickens’s book had, in the words of Lord Jeffrey “fostered more kindly feelings and prompted more positive acts of beneficence” than all the sermons in all the churches pervious. So if literature is so powerful to change the way people live, why isn’t it considered rhetoric?
That question is probably best addressed in Steven Mailloux (My-U)’s Rhetorical Power. In the book that would in some ways define his career, Mailloux advances a rhetorical perspective of literature that would present a middle ground between idealist and realist literary theory. He calls the exercise of this perspective “rhetorical hermeneutics” which he suggests as an “anti-Theory theory” that will “determine how texts are established as meaningful through rhetorical exchanges” (15). It isn’t just the content or, to use the old fashioned phrase, “theme” of a book that impacts people, but the way the story is drawn through, and the techniques that the author gets us to buy into.
Such a reading differs wildly from the notions of New Criticisms that would restrict interpretation to the page and from even Stanley Fish’s narrow academic interpretative community. Instead, the work is rooted in a specific history, rhetorical tradition, and cultural conversation (145-6). We can be impacted by 19th century books, but not the in same way that Lord Jeffrey and Stevenson were. There are conversations going on and arguments made in the book catalogs of any culture.
Mailloux claims that this perspective is not only engaged in the world outside the text, but also describes the temporal experience of reading. In this way, literature exits circles of elite academic interpretative communities and instead belongs to the community of readers at large. The text has an individual influence as well. Mailloux describes how a text can educate a reader (41) and train the reader to see and think a certain way as the text progresses (99). This education depends on the form of the work, how the work develops from premise to premise. Moby Dick is Mailloux’s main example of this kind of trained reading. The disappearing narrator through chapters isn’t just an error; it’s an education. In this way, rhetorical hermeneutics seem to draw on both Kenneth Burke’s discussion of form in Counter-statement and Wayne Booth’s concerns about immoral narration in The Rhetoric of Fiction. While Mailloux uses Moby Dick as his primary example of the education of the reader within the pages of a book, he spends more time discussing the way that a text’s educating qualities relate to a community’s debate, and what better example could he use than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?