Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Uh, I guess including recent history, because today we’re going to talk about the February 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication as our “journal of the month” summary. This issue, as editor Jonathan Alexander points out, “takes up the notion of the ‘personal’ in a variety of ways” (436), departing from what we might think of as “composition as usual.” The articles in it include thinking about students who are full-time workers, students who have disablities, and indigenous methodology.


College Composition and Communication, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is one of the grand old dames of composition journals. It came about way back in the 50s as a summary of the conference on college composition and communication and many of the early issues were just summaries of what happened in the conference, so that you could follow along at home. The conference itself was an outgrowth of the rise of college writing classes. Many of these early composition classes were taught by people trained in literature, and they were eager to have their own place to share ideas about teaching and come up with theories that would apply as well in Tampa as in Toledo. CCC, or “the cs” as it is sometimes called, is still a great resource for composition instructors and researchers looking for theory as well as practice for their own classrooms.


In that spirit, let me take you through a whirlwind summary of all of the articles in this issue. Maybe you don’t subscribe to it. Maybe you just haven’t had time to sit down and read it. Maybe you haven’t thought that reading a journal could be fun. Okay, let’s dig in.


The first article called “Don’t Call it Expressivism” is Eli Goldblatt’s cautionary response to the emphasis in composition studies on job-readiness and college sucess. If, as Goldblatt worries, “the discussion about writing instruction [is] too narrowly around school success and professional preparation” (441), we lose sight of other important goals of writing. Writing, he suggests, can have real personal and political power beyond the instrumental ways that learning to write well makes someone a better student or worker. He gives examples like Tiffany Rousculp’s community writing center in Salt Lake City and Sondra Perl’s work in Austria with student whose parents had been complicit with Nazi atrocities. Over all, he “hope[s] to link [students’] acts of writing to purposes more compelling to them than passing the next class or getting a job” (462).


Rebecca Brittenham wants to not just talk about student’s next job, but their current ones. She points out that often universities see student’s “dead-end jobs” as competition to focusing on school. They downplay what students learn through working and expect them to approach school like some idealized fully funded 18-year-old. “The multidimensional realities of students’ actual work experiences are often rendered invisible or obsured through a narrative of interference,” she writes (527). She created a research instrument to discover what kind of work students do and how it actually affects their education in a wider sense. Some students indeed report being time strapped, but they know that they must work several jobs to make rent. Other student report pride in their time management skills through their work experience. Brittenham makes some great suggestions for universities, like encouraging advisors to discuss skills on the job and how they align with course work or even creating a database of student-friendly employers in the area. Such accommodations would benefit all students, whether they work 3 hours a week or 30.


Accommodations are also the theme of Anne-Marie Womack’s article “Teaching is Accommodation,” where she focuses on how universal design, the use of design principles to include students with physical and learning disabilities. These designs often help everyone. The “classic example is the curb cut,” which benefits people in wheelchairs and also people with carts or, like rollerblades. Applying this principle to our clases, and especially documents like syllabi and course descriptions, Womack gives practical suggestions on colors, fonts and design that can help all students get the information they need. I was fascinated, for example, that there’s a font called Dyslexie that’s especially reader-friendly for folks with dyslexia, and that creating a submission window of several days rather than a hard deadline can help a variety of students succeed.


Chris Mays discusses complexity theory in relation to writing. After all, we rhetoricians understand that writing always takes place in a context and both impacts and is impacted by the systems in which it participates. He gives students two visual examples to illustrate the fractal complexity--the top of a pine tree looks very much like the top half of a tree looks very much like a whole pine tree. Similarly, the outline of a formal school paper has several main points, nestled under each of which there are many supporting point and their own supporting evidence (578-580). “By making and comparing different cuts” Mays writes, “we reveal how the writing works independently at each level and works in relation to form a complex text” (574).


Research should also be complex, argue Katja Thieme and Shurli Makmillen, as they introduce a research stance they call “principled uncertainty” (466). Because “researchers make method choices by considering how a method is valued in their research community,” communities with different knowledge values will contribute to a different accepted method. Indigenous research methos like “commuity-based or tribal centered research, collaborative participatory research, storytelling or “storywork” “yarning” or conversational method (471) all expand method because “method is situated, interpellative and dialogic” and indigenous conversational method is linked to a “particular tribal epistemology” (484).


There you have it. Each of this articles could be a podcast in themselves, but when you have them all sitting side-by-side it certainly gives you a feel for the variety and connection across one regular issue of College Composition and Communication. If you teach college writing classes, I recommend joining the National Council of Teachers of English, despite their awkward name, and I recommend subscribing the CCC.

Direct download: College_Composition_and_Communication.mp3
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