Mere Rhetoric



Doot-do-do…doot-doot-do-do…Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support as we head on into the podcast. First though, I’d like to remind you to swing on over to iTunes and leave us a review. Hopefully a good review, but, you know, you have to take what you get. Or you can check out our Twitter page @mererhetoricked. Also, if you want to reach out to me in more than 140 characters, you can send me an email at mererhetoricpodcast That’s a lot of ways to send me a message. It wasn’t like that for poor Peter Elbow.



In the early 1960s, Peter Elbow was an over-worked, over-stressed grad student. He was homesick as an American in Oxford, rejected by an English girl whom he loved and, just as bad, he couldn’t writing. Week after week, he failed to turn in the essays assigned him.


He felt burned out on school and like he was a failure. But then he learned about a scholar named Ken Macrorie, who emphasized a method called freewrting, the unimpeded flow of writing without second-guessing, without doubting yourself and without worrying about whether you were impressing anyone else. He began to take notes about when his writers block took over, when he got stuck and what he did to become unstuck. By the time he emerged from the sixties, PhD in hand, he had a huge stack of notes which eventually became Writing Without Teachers, a book that is still widely read more than 25 years later and a hallmark of the expressivist movement.


Expressivism was a composition theory that really took off in the 70s and 80s in America as composition instructors moved away from the strict “drill and kill” days of current traditionalism. Because of the trickling impact of research like the Braddock reports, which condemned the efficicacy of grammar drills, instructors were looking for a new way to teach and expressivism was just that.


Elbow and other expressivist theoreticans like Wendy Bishop, and Donald Murray believed that the best way for student to write was to just let them write, and write a lot. Instead of focusing on what the teacher wants the student to say, the expressivists were more concerned with what the student has to say. This means more open topics, even more open genres of writing. Want to write a poem about global warming? Sounds great. Want to express your anger t having to take a required class? Excellent. Passion is a big deal. Over all, expressivism was highly individualistic, impressionistic and idiosyncratic.


This can take different forms. Elbow’s Teacherless Writing Class as a way of giving and getting feedback: a very diverse group (115)seven to twelve people, encouraged to give only their personal reading responses (77) instead of worrying about “whether the writing is good or bad” but rather “whether it worked or didn’t work” (80, emphasis in original). Elbow admits that he was heavily influenced by Carl Rogers and group theorpy. If you don’t remember who Rogers was from your psychology class, he’s the guy who’s always parroting back what you said in the form of a question. “I’m angry.” “So you’re saying you’re angry?” So you can imagine Elbow’s workshops going kind of similarly: “I can’t write my introduction.” “So you’re having a hard time writing an introduction? Why do you think that is?”


Another expressivist, Donald Murray, in A Writer Teaches Writing suggests that students write like real writers and the instructor “shut up, to wait, to listen, to let your students teach themselves” (144, cf 224, 103). However, Murray is concerned that students learn to work under the deadlines and criticism that real writers use. Although Murray admires Peter Elbow (Murray calls him “the master of free writing” [8]) for the workshopping thing, but I think there’s less of a connection than some have claimed. While he claims that writing can be therapeutic, he doesn’t think that writing should be therapy (()) and he thinks that bad writing comes from “writing before [students] are ready to write” (17) which is very different from Elbow’s “write until it comes” philosophy, Although Murray did “vote with that caucus” of personal expression for many years (4-5).



Expressivism, despite-slash-because of its hippy-dippy reputation was controversial. Harris and Hashimoto (debate and doubt are vital to critical thinking), James Berlin (knowledge is too private, not socially conductive enough).


Famously, David Bartholmae who claimed that Elbow “comes down on the side of credulity as the governing idea in the undergraduate writing course” and doesn’t expect writers to prove themselves first and “wants his students to ‘trust’ language and implies, rightly, that I would teach a form of mistrust” (CCCC 1995)


But all of these critics may have been overstating the importance of expressivism as a movement.


As James Zebroski has pointed out in History, Reflection and Narrative: the Professionalization of Composition 1963-1983, expressivism was never actually a serious threat, even to the degree that he finds “very little evidence to suggest there even was anything one could title an expressivist movement” (106). Still what Zebroski calls “the spectre of expressivism” (106-9) nevertheless played a crucial role in rallying compositionists to professionalize within the academy. By responding to the imaginary opposition, those who wished to professionalize composition could draw lines in the sand that articulate their position. Faced with the idea that writing can’t be taught, compositionists had to formulate a good argument about how it could and develop cognitive lines of research that emphasize the process of writing and writing acculturation.


So while few compositionists would ever call themselves expressivits (Wendy Bishop insisted that she was, instead, a “social-expressivist”), expresivism had a huge impact on composition studies, even if it was just something to shake us out of the emphasis on grammatical correctness and writing themes that had dominated writing instrution for more than 75 years. So at least for that, we owe the expressivists a huge debt of gratitude. And even if the whole movement didn’t take root permanently, the methods of expressivism, of open, uncriticizing writing, free, fast and joyful, these have been added to the techniques of helping writers just write something, the way the helped Peter Elbow to do so all those years ago.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Expressivism_Rough.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 1:40pm CST

Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support I’m mary h and today we’re talking about Mina Shaughnessy’s book Error and Expectations


Errors and Expectations was published in 1977, but the story that led to it begins earlier, in the late 60s. After centuries of higher education being limited t the elite classes, universities began to open up. In fact, many universities, including Shaughnessy’s City College in New York, began open admissions. This meant that college education was now available to many people who had never before thought that they could attend college. This also meant that many of the new students were underprepared for college. This led to the development of what was called “basic writing”—what had previously been called “remedial writing.” Shaughnessey had to develop a program that would help the students to learn to write in ways that would enable success in all of their college classes. Quickly she discovered tht the students she taught weren’t writing like absolute novices or children, but that their writing had its own sort of logic based on the rules they thought they knew about writing. She found “BW students write the way they do, not because they are slow or non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic excellence, but because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes “ But it wasn’t enough just to go off of a hunch. Shaughnessey compiled more than 4000 placement essays—the essays that determined whether students needed to be placed in basic writing—and searched for the patterns in them.


In this way, Shaughnessay was a pioneer in two fields: First off, she was among the first composition scholars to look at the characteristics of basic writers in more than a defitionency model. These students weren’t monkeys bashing away at typewriters when they wrote their essays, but their errors were informed by their expectations—what they thought was good writing. If certain rules or principles hadn’t been taught them, their errors would exhibit those patterns, but Shaughnessy broke away from the idea that some people just couldn’t write or couldn’t be taught how to write. She encouraged instructors to not worry about having to lay ground work but instead insisted ““Words, for the most part, must be learned in contexts, not before contexts” (217).

She legitimized the study of basic writing and dignified basic writers within composition.


As she writes in her introduction “the territory I am calling basic writing and what others might call remedial or developmental writing” is still very much a frontier, unmapped, except for a scattering of impressionistic articles anda few blazed trails that individual teachers propose those their tests, and like the settlers of other frontiers, the teachers who by choice or assignment are heading to this pedagogical West are certain to be carrying many things they will no be needing, that will clog their journey as they get further on. So too they will discover the need of other things they do not have and will need to fabricate by mother wit out of what is at hand”


That kind of rough-and-ready development of a theory, is the other way that Shaughnessay influenced a developing field; she was among the first practitioner-scholars of composition. She taught basic writers for nine years and was intimately connected with these students’ experience, but she wasn’t content to thinking about improving the writing of just a handful of students in just her class. She found patterns in writing, began to classify and characterize these patterns and connected them to the available. When most of the understanding about basic writing was mired in what Stephen North would call “lore,” Shaughnessy was trying to find clear empirical ways of talking about student writing. This isn’t to say she was a pioneer in an ivory tower—each of her chapters gives suggestions to other practitioners and she talks about the importance of “Monday morning, into the life of the young man or woman sitting in a BW class,” where” our linguistic contemplations are likely to hover over a more immediate reality—namely the fact that a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generated more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code” –in short, writing with errors hurts the lives of basic writers. For Shaughnessy, the access to this code was a matter of political and social justice, and was imperative to her age—and if you think about how we have entered a world of incessant texting, blogging, report writing, then you can imagine how important these questions of access are today. You can image these questions of access resonating with later scholars who care about questions of access like Lisa Delpit.


Although we now have many more studies about the patterns of Basic writing and how to educate basic writers, Shaughnessy remains a crucial figure for the discipline and this book Erros and Expectations, is now a classic of composition research.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Errors_and_Expectations_Rough.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:36am CST

The classic, the first episode in better form! (Except this transcript is a little was-translated-by-someone-unfamiliar-with-rhetoric-and-American-politics. Thanks, Fivrr!)


What is Rhetoric?




            Welcome to MereRhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movement that have defined the history of rhetoric. Sponsored by the University of Texas Student Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America.


I'm Mary Hedengren at the University of Texas Austin and thank you for joining us on our inaugural podcast. Today, we're going to talk a little bit about "What is Rhetoric?"


            "No more rhetoric," says a politician or "Let's stop the empty rhetoric. It's time to cut the rhetoric and get to action." These are expressions that we hear all the time. Rhetoric is one of the only fields that's consistently used as a pejorative. We know better than that though. We know that rhetoric is a dynamic field with really important thinkers and a lot of contributions to a lot of other disciplines.


            But do we actually know what rhetoric is?


            It's hard for us to define what rhetoric is when everybody seems to think that it's something like rhetricory,to use Wayne Booth's term. So what is it? How do we explain to our potential fathers-in-law, aunts at family reunions or hairdressers? What it is that we're doing with our time and our money?


            Actually, the history of defining rhetoric is the history of rhetoric. This is a question that's been plaguing people for a really long time. I'm trying to figure out what it is that we're doing and how to describe it becomes an obsession of a lot of the greatest thinkers.


            Today, we're going to talk a little bit about some of these thinkers; some of the ways that rhetoric has been defined historically and some things that might be useful for us now as we seek to find an answer to that pesky question, "What is it that you're doing?"


            One of the biggest ways to sort of think about rhetoric is through metaphors and we'll talk more about metaphors and the powers that they have in a later podcast. We might think about some of the ones that Plato brings up when he's talking about them in Gorgias. Is rhetoric sugar for medicine? Spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down; that's able to sort of lighten the load of the hard truths of philosophical or scientific inquiry?


            Is rhetoric like fighting in boxing and when we teach people rhetoric, we're only giving them a neutral skill that could be used for positive purposes or negative purposes. These are a few of the many metaphors that come up to sort of try to describe what is that rhetoric is about.


            Now, some of the different definitions that have come up have been sort of through the western tradition. Plato for example called rhetoric the art of winning the soul by discourse and we sort of think of Plato as being sort of back and forth from how you felt about rhetoric. Sometimes he seems to think that rhetoric is a really bad idea; other times, he's more concerned about how it can be done well and defining rhetoric can something that can be useful.


            So when he says winning the soul through discourse, he's really concerned a lot about how you can talk to somebody who you really love and care for and know a lot about them and sort of have responsible good rhetoric. Aristotle on the other hand – instead of thinking about winning the soul by discourse is more about finding the available means of persuasion.


            This is kind of a different switch from Plato where instead of rhetoric being something that you use as an instrument, you have what could really be called defensive rhetoric. Just discovering. It's an act of invention. You sort of see what could be possible.


            This is going to be important for a lot of rhetorical history especially if pedagogs you are people are starting to think about how do we do exercises were people try to find all of the available means of persuasion. What could be done? What could be effective? Instead of thinking as purely it’s something that's practical.


            You may get this a lot when you're talking to people at parties. Is rhetoric something that you just teach people so that they can use, so that they can give a good speech or give a good presentation? Or is rhetoric also something that you want to study so that people aren't taken in byhuxtorsor are able to weigh an argument, be more balanced about it.


            This is a pretty big definition and it bears more conversation than we have time for here but we'll probably talk about that in a later podcast. If not, I encourage you to go through and sort of think about how that definition is going to impact the way that you give an answer and the way that you direct your own work. Now, Cicerodid a lot of different definitions of rhetoric and he's one of guys who's most famous for sort of breaking up this one big art, rhetoric, into these several different sort of sub purposes or canons.


So we have things like invention as being part of rhetoric and all the way back to memorizing the speech and giving a good delivery, pronouncing the words that you say. All of these things, Cicero says, are part of rhetoric.


            These distinctions can be important for us as we try to define our own definition of what rhetoric is. Are we going to say that rhetoric is about finding the information? Does it include the research that we go to? Does it include the things that impact the way that we do the research we do? What kinds of inquiry are appropriate through the kind of product that we want to produce?


            On the other side of things, how much of rhetoric is delivery? Is the performance of it? In recent times, we sort of stepped away from thinking about performance too much as opposed to sort of what Cicero was thinking about what was actually an oral performance where you stand up and entertain people and sort of get up; many different sort of public speaking elements that you can or sort of hold their interest.


            And this becomes something that we could really think about especially this one with whether invention is part of rhetoric. Back in history, this is going to be a big question to sort of define what our field is. Some people are going to put Peter Ramos as sort of the bad guy in the story as somebody who says, "Maybe rhetoric doesn't have to do with invention. Maybe rhetoric is just this other half, this delivery; how you polish it up," Is rhetoric just a pretty face that we put on a good piece of philosophy?


            This definition may remind you a little bit about Plato's idea that this is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. But in another sense, it's really taking out any sort of invention and put in that more sort of the business of science as opposed to [00:06:57] philosophy which I think is where some of these other bacon and [00:07:03] are sort of taking it.


This starts to become little bit more upended mostly in the 18th century. We have people like George Campbell who said rhetoric is an art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are enlightening the understanding, pleasing the imagination, moving the passion and influencing the will. These four ends of discourse become really important; they sort of trickle down a lot through textbooks during this period.


            Is rhetoric something that is going to be involved with literature? And fiction? And pleasing the imagination? Is it going to be something that moves our passions? Changes our emotions? Like a passionate appeal for a political change. Is it going to be something that enlightens the understanding? Do textbooks have rhetoric?


            These are some questions that sort of Campbell, his definition, are really going to influence with us. Now, let's move finally to the 20th century and some of the definitions here. Kenneth Burke sort of changes our idea of what is rhetoric. He sort of says, "Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself; a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew."


            The use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings by nature respond to symbols. This is kind of a step away from some of the things that even George Campbell was saying. What if rhetoric isn't just about persuasion? What if it isn't just about getting people to think the way you do? What if it has to do with any sort of cooperation based on symbols?


            This is a huge break. This sort of breaks away from this idea that it has to be linguistic or that it has to be about achieving some end like George Campbell said. It's an exciting development and we'll talk a lot more probably in an upcoming podcast about Kenneth Burke. By the way, this is a really cool place to start push rhetoric in another direction.


            Finally, moving in to people who live today. This is not like we've settled the question of what is rhetoric. There's still lot of people who are trying to figure this out and put different definitions of it. The great leader in composition Andrea Lunsford says that rhetoric is the art, practice and study of human communication.


            This is an interesting definition that might come up when you're talking with people. This is really hard problem because sometimes, we're really good at the study of human communication. But as rhetoricians, are we responsible to think about the practice of human communications? How well does rhetorician do standing up in front of an audience talking about their research?


            This is something that's making me super self-conscious as somebody who's put in together a podcast. But how much of what we do is sort of divorced from this level where a sister I was talking about it as a performance, a practice; something that's sort of happens out there as delivery. Another major of trend that seems to pop up with a lot of these modern definitions of rhetoric is thinking about what the goal is.


            For example, Charles Chuck Bazerman talks about how rhetoric is the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities. This is something about getting it done. Another definition that's sort of focuses on this is Gerard or Gerry Hauser's definition where he says, "Rhetoric is an instrumental use of language."


            One person engages another person in an exchange of symbols to accomplish some goal; it is not communication for communication sake. Rhetoric is communication that attempts to coordinate social action. For this reason, rhetorical communication is explicitly pragmatic. Its goal is to influence human choices on specific matters that require immediate attention.


This is a really interesting idea and it's what that [00:11:09] thinking about when you're defining rhetoric for your friends and then for yourself. Do you see rhetoric as something that accomplishes goals? Can good rhetoric be ineffective?


            A lot of times, people think about this in terms of Edmund Burke who is this great thinker and a fantastic writer. Someday, we'll talk about him. I'd like to think so. If not, go online and check out some of the speeches because this guy is on fire. He's like one of the best speakers to ever come out of England. And he gave one of his like creme de la creme speeches and a really strong one saying, "Hey England. Let's not go to war with America," but what happened, right?


            So here's a guy who's really good at what he does and really one of the top retorts but when he speaks, he doesn't bring about change. So, was that good rhetoric? Or bad rhetoric? Does rhetoric depend on its efficiency with audience? Is it all about the ends? Or can it be good rhetoric that does everything that rhetoric should do and is a shining beacon but nonetheless, fails to convince its audience.


            Another way to sort of think about this – one of my favorite examples is Eminem's song Mosh. Do you remember that? This is from the second election of George W Bush. It was awesome and passion rap song; sort of tells people to go out and let's not re-elect Bush and let's show him how angry we are. It's such an awesome piece of music.


            But you know what, Bush didn't win. And me? I still think Eminem is a great rapper.


            So in sum, we've talked about a lot of good questions that you'd think about and making your own definition of rhetoric. Is rhetoric something that you practice? Or is it something that's studied? Does it include invention and coming up with ideas? Does it include delivery and how those ideas are actually presented?


            Is rhetoric dependent on being language? Or does it work with any symbol? Does rhetoric always have to involve persuasion? And if so, does it depend on whether or not the goal is achieved; whether or not that was good rhetoric?


            As we continue to define and find sort of a definition of rhetoric, the purpose of this podcast is going to be sort of expand on some of these questions about what rhetoric is doing. We're going to talk about some of the most important ideas; some of the most important figures and some of the most important theories and movements that have shaped through rhetorical field.


            Decide for yourself. What is rhetoric? Why is rhetoric important to you? What sort of advances in rhetoric are going to be the ones that you want to contribute? You could think for yourself but one sort of one liney, piffy definition of what rhetoric is may be coming from some of these theories.


            Practice it for yourself a few times and that way next time, when somebody at a party asks you what it is you study, you could have a good comeback instead of just staring at your punch glass for a few more minutes.


            Thank you for joining me today – our first episode of Mere Rhetoric. If you have any questions or suggestions or things that you really would like to hear more about, feel free to email me. My email is And I'll try to take some of yourquestions sometimes. Thanks for joining us and remember, rhetoric is not just a pejorative.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Episode_1_What_Is_Rhetoric.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:15pm CST



Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and outsiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Send us feedback or suggestions at if you’d like, or go on iTunes and give us a rating—hopefullly a good one, but whatever you do... I’m Mary Hedengren and I was an English major.




We English majors are always being accused of loving metaphors. “We write clearly,” our science friends say smugly. “We don’t use any of that flowery language.” We, because we love our science friends, refrain from pointing out that “clear” writing and “flowery language” are, in fact, metaphors. Metaphors are often seen as deliberate and poetic in the hands of our greatest literary minds: from “It is the east and Juliet is the sun”, to “Love is a battle field” we think that metaphors are purposeful and avoidable and exclusively for poets or English majors.




Not so! Say conceptual metaphor scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In Lakoff and Johnson’s highly influential 1980 text Metaphors We Live By, they argue that Metaphors used by poets are just reformulations of conventional conceptual metaphors (267).  We discover the power of metaphors in all kinds of language in this book, not just “clear” writing and “flowery language,” but even daily greetings like “what’s up?” or “What do you have going on?” These metaphors are grounded in everyday life and make abstract ideas concrete.




Think about it: abstract thought is largely metaphorical, and the more abstract, the more we try to ground it (and there’s another metaphor). If you want to talk about abstracts, you almost always fall into metaphorical thought. It’s unavoidable and unconscious. In this sense, the title of the book Metaphors we Live By demonstrates how pervasive these patterns of thinking really are. Metaphors rely on understanding the world through the experience from “the perspective of man as part of his environment” (229).




It’s granted though, that “part of a metaphorical concept does not and cannot fit” (13). Love may be a battlefield because of the high stakes and opposition, but it certainly isn’t a battlefield because there are canons, bayonets and eventually historical markers. Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge the limits of the metaphor because “when we say that a concept is structure by a metaphor, we mean that it is partially structure and that it can be extended in someways but not in others” (13). Exactly what it is that does get highlighted points out something about the author or community that created the metaphor. The phrase “love is a battlefield” is shocking and expressive because it highlights the violence and pain of love. Saying love is like a red, red rose highlights another aspect of love. The metaphor of love as a gift highlights something else. Love as a tyrant highlights get another thing. Love as a shock, as magic, as a hole into which one falls, or an armed, naked child all fit and don’t fit love and they all highlight some aspect of what the author or community is trying to say about love. The structure of a metaphor highlights somethings and hide others. The structure extends beyond a single metaphor, though, to families of metaphors.




Lakoff and Johnson point out that there are some general metaphors that connect many smaller metaphors into a big, over arching metaphor. Some of these master metaphors include social groups as plants or life as a journey. Think about it: We might have a friend who has “lost all direction” and is “wandering” and “stalled out,” while another is a “go-getter” who is always on the “fast track” “getting ahead” along a “career path.” We ourselves  talk about “back when I was in high school” or “I’m looking forward to Tuesday,” or say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” like life is a path that takes us from one physical spot to another.  All of these little one-word metaphors belong under the larger umbrella of “life is a journey.” Similarly, we might say the same thing about LOVE IS WAR: We speak of romantic conquests, misalliences, being won over and fighting for a beloved’s affection. They all circle around this idea of war, which our culture has connected, weirdly, with romance.




And when these metaphors become part of our lives, we begin to extrapolate that the metaphors we’ve used in our society begin to have an impact back on our society again. If our society is invested in the idea that life is a journey, we may see the past as distant and unapproachable, something you can’t return to, once you’ve left. The metaphor comes from our culture and the metaphor comes back and changes our metaphor. It’s a process that reinforces itself so that cultural assumptions are backed up by tiny language choices. We can see this easily in overtly sexist, racist or ablest metaphors in language: “man up,” “red-headed stepchild,” “strong argument,” “a black day,” “lame idea.” People are used to using the pejorative metaphors so much that they seem natural and innocuous, while they reinforce ideas of which groups are powerful and which are subjected. It’s not just minority groups that are kept in subjection by the pervasive use of unexamined metaphoric language. An entire culture can be limited from seeing alternative narratives of power because of a block of metaphors that reinforces one perspective.




Let me give an example that Lakoff and Johnson give. We often use war metaphors to talk about discussions and debate. We say that we will either “win” or “lose” an argument. That we argue “against” an “opponent.” We can “attack a weak argument” or “make a good point” and if we do, they might respond, “touché.” Or an idea might “lose ground” or be “indefensible.” What if, instead, we thought of discussions as dances instead? Suddenly our opponents become “partners” and we move through a discussion in a non-combative sense.




You may point out, “Sometimes arguments are dances—what about when we ‘dance around’ an idea?” You’re absolutely right. While metaphors used to reason about concepts may be inconsistent, we live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor (272-3).




Because metaphors are both formed by a society and influence the society, Lakoff and Johnson argue that they provides a philosophical middle ground between objective and subjective myths (184-225). This understanding is situated in neither an objective world outside of human experience nor in an entirely internal state; metaphors are constructed culturally in “the way we understand the world through our interactions with it” (194). These ideas mean that much of the history of thought is actually a history of trying to come up with better metaphors. Lakoff has written about how metaphors have influenced decisions like who to vote for and whether to go to war, with the assumption that this influence was, in some way, a tainting of rational thought. I’m not sure what correct thought would look like, partially because I have a hard time imagining anything breaking away from metaphorical conceptualization.




This book has had lasting influence since it was published more than 40 years ago. Look it up on Google Scholar and you’ll find it cited well over 30,000 times in everything from business to linguistics to computer programming. For instance, Peter Novig has pointed out how useful this kind of thinking may be for those in AI. Because those robots are always so literal—I’m looking at you, Data!








If you have a favorite metaphor, why not drop us a line at  And don’t forget, whether you’re an airy poet or the most hard-nosed scientist, there’s no escaping the power of metaphors.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Conceptual_Metaphors_Final.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:26am CST

Welcome to Mere rhetoric, a pocast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like to take you back, back in time…




It was 1985. As Bowling for Soup would later describe the year, “there was U2 and Blondie, and Music still on MTV” And in the pages of College English a debate was raging. Two scholars, careful and smart, battling over a question that still haunts beginning composition instructors: should we teach punctuation to first year writing students? The debate between Martha Kolln and Patrick Hartwell describes some of the difficulties in navigating the question of teaching grammar and punctuation, but it doesn’t begin with the Hartwell-Kolln debate of the 80s: it begins with the Braddock Report of 1963.




            The Braddock report, or, more properly, “Research in Written Composition" by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer was commissed by the National Council of Teachers of English to answer the question of whether grammar instruction had any impact on improving student writing. And what they found was that, using one- and three-year studies, instructing in grammar  was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing. And for many instructors, that sealed the deal. Grammar fell deeply out of favor. But the Braddock report wasn’t carefully applied: its full argument was that: "The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963). The way grammar was being taught could be faulty without the practice of teaching grammar being problematic. In other words, to cite the 1960 Encyclopedia of Education Research “Diagramming sentences …teaching nothing beyond the ability to diagram.” Still, grammar was out.




            For Patrick Hartwell, that sealed the deal. In “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammars,” he makes some strong claims against the teaching of grammar in composition. For one thing, he says that most errors don’t matter and those errors that do matter can usually be “caught” without knowing if they’re a predicate or a verbal adverb or whatever. Some of these errors will be caught ‘naturally,” Hartwell says, without anyone teaching explicitly. As he says, “If we think seriously about error and its relationship to the worship of forma l grammar study, we need to attempt some massive dislocation of our traditional thinking ,to shuck off our hyperliterate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us.




Most students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and, by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote.” If you can speak it, you can get it. Hartwell does admit that people who are coming at English from another language tradition may need more explicit help, but grammar can be cut from most classes without much harm being done. Hartwell cites research that spending time on grammar is useless and claims that “It is time that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy and let those theories guide our teaching, and it is time that we, as researchers,  move on to more interesting areas of inquiry.”  




Martha Kolln was not ready to move on. Kolln read Hartwell’s argument and gave it a big ol’ nu-uh. Students don’t just have an inborn sense of grammar because they don’t have an inborn sense of rhetoric.  She doesn’t think composition should be exclusively a grammar class, but she does believe in what she calls “rhetorical grammar.”




In her book of the same name, Martha Kolln tells us that punctuation is part of our voice, not just a “final, added-on step” (279). Some of these consequences are more delicate (“will that semi-colon create a more formal air than that dash?”), while others are more blunt (“if you use all caps here, your academic paper will look like an eight-grader’s text-message”). Kolln does a good job of not saying that certain things are off-limits—sentence fragments, passive voice, ellipsis.  Overall, these are choices, just like any rhetorical choice. So when Hartwell says that grammar shouldn’t be researched or taught in composition, she read his argument as saying “a subset of rhetorical choices shouldn’t be taught in composition.” And So she wrote a comment in to College English.




In this comment she agrees that composition shouldn’t be just about grammar and she agrees with the Braddock report that “formal grammar is not the best way to teach grammar” but “rhetorical grammar has a place in our composition class, because of course grammar is there” (877). And if the grammar is there, then it ought to be talked about intelligently. Kolln sees a lot of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater in getting rid of all grammar instruction.




When people claim “ Our students should learn to write by writing-only by writing, by letting it all hang out. Let's not in-hibit their creativity by calling unnecessary attention to the structures they use; and we're certainly to have no "lessons" on sentence structure or parts of speech, on "formal gram-mar."






How foolish. How harmful. The result is a generation (or more) of students who have no language for discussing their language. We teach them terminology in every other field-in science and math and history and geography and computer science and physical education, in literature, and in French. But not in their own language.”




Well, Hartwell read Kolln’s argument and made the snappy reply “ther’s little to be accomplished by talking about paradigms” Zing!




I mean, is it okay if I take a sidebar and say that passions here are remarkably high? Both Kolln and Hartwell have deep-rooted passions about the teaching and study of grammar, calling each other’s perspectives “foolish”  and sniping at each other. It’s rare to find such academic vitriol, so when ever it comes up, you know there’s some intense feelings going on.




Anyway, Hartwell says that not teaching grammar doesn’t keep student from talking about grammar because, of course, they will do so naturally, because “every culure develops a remarkable rich metalinguistics vocabulary for discussion language” and current students are no exception. He also says that it’s better to err on his side of thigns because if, hypothetically, he and Kolln were to take a tour of writing instruction among practioners, “ we’d find it dripping with a kind of grammar instruction we both deplore.”






Okay, so after the furver of these grammar debates, where does that leave us? Strangely, the answer to that question depends on which generation “us” is. The Braddock reports did eventually filter down into the classrooms and for a while it looked that Hartwell won this one. During that while was when I went through high school, actually. I had a totally of 3 days of grammar instruction in high school, which came during a creative writing class, of all things. But I was never expected to know any grammar vocabulary beyond what it takes to fillout a MadLibs.




But that’s changed. Yesterday my mom—also a writing teacher—texted me to say that she had been helping her 12-year-old grandson diagram sentences. Diagram sentences! I didn’t know that had been happening since the fifties: bowling leagues, Tupperware parties and diagramming sentences and here’s my nephew, in a generally progressive school, diagramming sentences! I shouldn’t be too surprised, though—I’ve noticed that each year my freshmen student enter with more and more background in grammar. This has led to the odd situation where sometimes my students know more about formal grammar than I do.




If you have strong feelings about grammar one way or another, why not tell us all about it at And don’t worry too much about proofreading your email—I’m not going to send it back corrected.






Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Kolin_Hartwell_Final.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:26pm CST