Wed, 22 June 2016
[acoustic guitar music]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, and every time we do Mere Rhetoric, I hope you feel like it's a cozy introduction to some of the people who have been part of rhetorical history at different times and places. But it's rare that I actually get to talk about somebody who I've sat next to, and I've eaten lunch with. And in fact, I got to eat lunch twice with today's topic, Suresh Canagarajah. Canagarajah is kind of a hero of mine, and he's a really amazing scholar and just a really nice human being. I met him for the first time when I was a beginning graduate student, and I was at a really small conference -- small enough that they were willing to pay for us to eat lunch together every day, and I got to sit next to Suresh Canagarajah, who is one of the superstars of that particular conference, which focused mostly on multilingual writers and different writing traditions.
So it was such a big honor to get to meet him. And not only did I get to meet him, but he was really nice and sort of soft-spoken. Later, I actually got to see him, talk with him a little bit at this last year's MLA in Vancouver. And again, he was just really nice and generous, and... I don't know, I just really enjoy spending time with Suresh Canagarajah. So today we're gonna talk little bit about him, and I hope you spend time with him right now and get to enjoy the time that you spend here.
Okay, so the reason why I was a little cowed by Suresh Canagarajah is he's done some really important work. His book, Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, won the MLA's Mina Shaughnessy award in 2000. Later, another book that he wrote, Geopolitics of Academic Writing, won the Gary Olson Award from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition in 2003. So he's kind of a hotshot. His work focuses, like I said, mostly on different ideas of teaching English, and the ways that English becomes part of the cultural capital in other traditions. And to be able to get at this idea, he focuses at the very beginning in the former British colony of Sri Lanka, which is where he's from. Canagarajah himself is a multilingual writer who had to negotiate identities as a Sri Lankan, as well as a scholar in rhetoric. So his background sort of uniquely prepares him to be able to talk about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching. This book focuses on how, quote, "The classroom culture is a site where the agendas of the different interest groups get played out, negotiated, and contested," end quote.
Teaching English in a country where they have other linguistic traditions is always going to be a question of power. And there's conflicting attitude and behavior about students regarding English study. On one hand it opens up a lot of possibilities for them, especially economically and in terms of power. But on the other hand, they have, quote, "conflicts in having to indulge in a communicative activity, from which they have to keep out their preferred values, identities, conventions, and knowledge content," end quote. So you can feel a little bit like you're betraying you own language, our own writing tradition, and even your own values when you engage in academic writing -- or any other type of writing -- in English. These students have to, quote, "negotiate with English to gain positive identities, critical expression, and ideological clarity." And they will become insiders and use the language in their own terms, according to their own aspirations, needs, and values. This seems like a high order for teaching English and making sure that the people who come from other language backgrounds aren't isolated, that they can use the dominant discourses from the perspective of their vernacular standpoint to creatively modify the codes, not just buy into the standard American English, but sort of have a way to feed back to American academic English from their own traditions, and bring what they have to the table as well. This of course has application in the classroom.
So he says, "The end result of this pedagogy is a critical awareness of the rationale, rules, and consequences of the competing discourses in the classroom and outside." So there's a lot of emphasis in Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, on the teaching aspect. But everything that he says about teaching can apply to other ways that English remains the lingua franca of academic writing. So you can think about this in terms of articles that get published in academic journals, or the way that conferences are conducted -- the fact that when I go here Canagarajah speak, he has to speak in English, and that puts us at a different power dynamic than maybe it would be if I had to meet him and speak in Tamil.
So when he goes about talking about the potential for linguistic imperialism in teaching English, he comes at it from an ethnographic perspective. Particularly an ethnographic perspective that takes in his own culture. In some circles, talking about sort of your own lived experience can be called autoethnography. Autoethnography looks at your own group, your own circle, and sort of yourself as a participant in this particular group. Canagarajah defends the use of autoethnography because, he says, "It gets you into doors that you wouldn't get into otherwise." For example, he points to closed faculty meetings, or casual conversations. When he talks about autoethnography, it's perhaps a controversial methodology because there can be questions about how much disclosure he has in those closed faculty meetings and other situations. But on the other hand, it makes you sure that you're proceeding from an insider's perspective and not being imperialistic in the ethnography that you're doing.
Now, his book about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching was controversial sort of itself. Robert O'Neil argues that people learn English, quote, "to communicate with people who do not speak the same language," end quote, instead of communicating with your own people. And that it's not just about the sort of insider, talking to each other situation. There are nationalists, as well as universalists, who either reject English study as nationalists, or embrace an English that is, quote, "expansive, malleable, and neutral." Canagarajah is sort of proposing something else, where English is not neutral at all, but it's sort of a necessary -- I don't want to say evil, but a necessary [inaudible] for a lot of people to enter discussions of power.
Canagarajah draws on a lot of other theorists, including Phillipson, who really focuses on the native speaker fallacy, which is this idea that if you're a native speaker, somehow you understand English than somebody who isn't a native speaker. And Phillipson's work has been really important in questions of TESOL. And it's kind of fitting that Canagarajah has just recently become the editor of TESOL Quarterly, which is the journal that focuses on teaching English to speakers of other languages. So it's -- You can see sort of a clear trajectory in the work that he does.
More recently though, his work has sort of expanded from looking at world English’s in terms of groups that speak English outside of the United States, to linguistic and dialectic variety in all of its situations, including African American vernaculars. He's interested in how new forms of globalization, quote, "lead to fluid, discursive, and linguistic practices between communities." And he's interested in all of the different ways that we look at English, and why we can find other strategies that will treat English, quote, "as a heterogeneous language, made up of diverse varieties of equal status, each with its own norms and system." This work has also sort of applied to different ways that people publish in English in different situations as sort of diaspora communities. The panel that I was able to listen to him speak at MLA focused on these multiple English’s, and what might be termed as experts' right to their own language. That is to say, once you get enough cachet, you can bring in your own linguistic tradition and your dialect, and nobody's going to think twice of it. But if you're a novice, then you might be stuck speaking something that looks a little bit more like bland, imperialistic American academic English. So Canagarajah is a really amazing scholar, and he's really done some interesting things. I recommend you, check out some of the books from him -- especially Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching.
No matter how you feel about the role of English in American academic writing, it will definitely spark some conversations that you can have with other scholars, or even just thinking about it yourself. But even if you don't get a chance to read Canagarajah's work, I can hope for you even the greater honor that you will be able to meet him at a conference sometime.
Wed, 15 June 2016
[acoustic guitar music]
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren.
If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably somebody who's interested in the power of language. You're probably an English major or a Rhetoric and Writing major, or you're at least taking a class in it.
But there are a lot of different disciplines that we've all interacted with. Whether it was a required biology class when you were an undergraduate, or a course in statistics you're taking right now. One of the things that's difficult to tease out in rhetoric and composition is how different disciplines create different types of writing genres and different forms of writing. This is one of the things that Susan Peck MacDonald encountered in the early 1990s. In her book Professional Academic Writing, she thinks about writing in these different disciplines as a spectrum. She sees these academic disciplines may be roughly ranged on a continuum by the degree to which their knowledge-making goals and practices are in the foreground. But even though she puts them around a continuum, she's not saying that there's anything wrong with having different types of knowledge-making goals, nor is it too, as she says, "deny that there may be other goals in the social sciences and humanities, but it serves as a focal point for exploring the differences among the disciplines."
So along the spectrum, she posits on one side, academic fields are arrayed more or less on a continuum, from the hard sciences to the soft humanities. And in this way, she realizes that a lot of the work that's been done by people in the humanities has been to what she calls "debunk" -- fields that are harder than the field that they're written in. So something about being in the humanities makes you want to prove that science isn't just objective. And she says that this debunking, quote, "suggests there is a strong tendency toward rearguard action, stemming from perceived loss of power, desire for enhanced status, and intellectual insecurity among social scientists and humanists." While that may be true, sometimes I do think we suffer from what she terms "science envy".
So I think it's fair to sort of re-approach this question of disciplinarity from what it would be like within that actual discipline. So that's just what she's done. She's compiled these three sort of representative groups: the humanities, the social sciences, and science. And she's put them along this continuum. So representing science, she has psychology, specifically infant attachment research. So this is, you know, how much babies are attached to their mothers and what impact that has and how to test that. The sort of stuff where you actually have people in white lab coats standing behind two-way mirrors, observing stuff happening. Then in the middle, she has social sciences, which in this group is history, which sometimes looks a little bit more like humanities and sometimes looks a little bit more social studies-ish. Then on the far end, she has humanities. And the group that she looks up is new historicists, which in the mid-90s were kind of a big rising star in the world of literary studies. So she puts these groups along the continuum, and then she tries to find, what are some of the representative articles of it? So she gets some journals that are representative in the field of these three different studies. And what she does is she begins to look at the writing styles, even down to the very level of sentences. She says that academic writing may be readily described as a vehicle for constructing and negotiating knowledge claims.
So she suggests that the different types of knowledge claims that these three groups are making is going to be represented in the type of sentences that they use. And so to be able to do this, she codes these sentences in seven different groups. The first group are the groups that she calls "phenomenological". These are things -- in the first place, particulars. Specific people, places, things. In the second place, she puts groups of things. So groups of people, places. In the third group, she talks about attributes of those things. So for example, Queen Elizabeth's desire is an attribute of a particular, Queen Elizabeth. And she suggests that these groups that are more phenomenological are probably going to be less based in really knowledge-dense disciplines. The next class are the epistemic classes, and these include reasons, research, -isms like Marxism or feminism, and appeals to the audience, like "we think this," "we think that". What she found is that literature leans heavily towards the phenomenal cases -- a lot of particulars and a lot of attributes. While psychology is a little bit more epistemic; reasons dominate, with a little bit of research as well, and some talk about groups. In between them, history focuses on groups, and then a little bit on attributes. So by looking at the distribution of the subjects of the sentences and these different disciplines, MacDonald has sort of teased out that the types of writing that they do, down to the very sentence level, may represent what the priorities are for the different disciplines. From this, she's sort of able to describe her theory that she articulates at the beginning of the book, that some disciplines are rural, and others are urban. I really like this metaphor, because it provides a really clear visual representation of what happens in the knowledge-making of these different groups. In the sciences, things are very dense. You have a lot of people working in a very small area. So you can imagine a skyscraper with thousands of scientists all working on one part of one gene, all the time.
Things move very quickly, you have to publish very fast off of your results, things are always changing. This is why perhaps in the sciences, they favor a style like APA that highlights the dates. On the other side of things, you have very rural disciplines. So you can think of these as homesteaders, people who don't like to be fenced in. And in fact, sometimes in the humanities, if anybody gets too close to you and starts doing the same sort of research you're doing, you purposely might change your focus and get a little bit farther out into the frontier. These groups are focusing on individuality and novelty in the ways that they approach their research. So once MacDonald has sort of taken a look at all of these different disciplines, the next step is to think about, well how do you learn to write in a discipline?
As she says, "Any suggestions about changing in academic writing involve understanding of the complexities of the different writings styles. So blanket condemnations of passive verbs for instance, or prescriptions for vividly concrete verbs, are largely ineffectual because they do not take into account either the historical situatedness, or the complex of knowledge-making goals and rhetorical situations represented in different kinds of academic writing," end quote. So if you worked in a writing center for example, it might be tempting to see a lab report and begin to criticize them for having passive verbs, when actually that's very appropriate in that kind of discipline. I think what MacDonald is suggesting here is that disciplines are unique from each other, and it might be worthwhile to sort of appreciate where they're coming from and just kind of accept it. If you're learning to write within a specific discipline, she suggests that you go through four stages. The first is nonacademic writing -- so casual personal writing.
Texts, blogs, things like that. Then in stage two, you learn what she calls generalized academic writing, concerned with stating claims, offering evidence, respecting other people's opinions, and learning to write with authority. Level two is kind of the stuff that we think of as happening in first year composition. In level three, she talks about novice approximations of particular disciplinary ways of making knowledge. So this would be like as you move into your discipline, you begin to write more and more lab reports, or you co-author on a paper -- things like that. Finally, you've reached level four, which is expert insider prose when you're really deep in the discipline. So MacDonald suggests that disciplines aren't all the same. And the types of writing that they do may reflect different priorities. Even though you may be solidly entrenched in the world of English and words, think about that next time you talk with somebody who identifies as an economist, or a psychologist, or a physicist, or a chemist. The way that you talk about academic writing may be very different from the way they do.
[shakers and acoustic guitar music]
Wed, 8 June 2016
Wed, 1 June 2016
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped rhetorical history. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Twitter @mererhetoricked. This is a rebroadcasted episode
And guys. Guys, today we address the last of the three traditional branches of rhetoric. This makes me sad. We had the Law and Order rush of judicial or forensic rhetoric and the pageantry of epideictic rhetoric and today we come to deliberative, or political rhetoric. And then we won’t have any more branches of rhetoric, because if there’s one thing Aristotle loved, it’s breaking things down into threes.
It is, of course, Aristotle who thought to divide rhetoric into the three genres of judicial, epideictic and deliberative and there’s nothing that says rhetoric always fits into these handy three categories, but it was convenient for Aristotle to do so. Think about it: Three branches of rhetoric. One of them, the judicial, focuses on the past—did the accused do something accuse-worthy? One of them—epideictic—focuses on the present—let’s celebrate how great this day is right now. And so one of them, deliberative rhetoric, will focus on the future. Judicial, epideictic, deliberative; past, present, future; law, community, policy.
It’s deliberative rhetoric that focuses on determining a future course to take. Traditionally, this was read strictly, as a matter of political debate by those who had authority to determine policy for a city state—should we go to war with Sparta? As Aristotle says, deliberative rhetoric "aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm." Aristotle gave two pairs of criteria for practitioners of deliberative rhetoric to keep in mind as they chose their debates. First, the moral—is it good or is it unworthy? Good or unworthy includes ethical concerns, but not exclusively that. Remember that for Romans “virtue” meant “manly” and “gentleman” used to mean a rank and not a compliment, so in some ways, worthy has to do with a specific set of political and social ideals and not just some sort of kindness-first morality that seems more natural to contemporary readers. It may be “good” to go to war to avenge some perceived slight to the country’s aristocratic pride, if pride is considered a moral priority. Aristotle lists things that are “good” like good birth, bodily stature, wealth and reputation, which might seem a little shallow alongside ethical virtues like justice, courage and generosity.
The second pair of criteria are even more pragmatic: is it advantageous or disadvantageous? In this pairing, you can see these less squishy values becoming more important. The country needs money and war with Sparta will bring spoils and rewards. War with Sparta will increase our reputation as a fearsome city state. Things like that. So that’s Aristotle for you: deliberative rhetoric deals with the future, and you can argue about whether an act is good or whether it is advantageous.
But a lot has happened in the years and centuries and millennia since Aristotle. Mostly we keep going back to the divisions that Aristotle came up with, even though we have changed our ideas of democracy and deliberative rhetoric for that matter. Oh, but don’t worry—Aristotle isn’t the only person willing to divide things into three parts! G. Thomas Goodnight, a rhetoric professor at the University of Southern California, studies argumentation, especially deliberative rhetoric, and he decided that deliberative rhetoric can take place in what he calls three spheres—the public, the technical and the private. The public is the one that is most familiar to us.
We think of deliberative rhetoric as necessarily political, but that is not necessarily that case. If deliberative rhetoric just means “forward looking,” and “policy deciding” it doesn’t just have to be about whether we should go to war with Sparta—and not just because the city state of Sparta isn’t much of a threat anymore. No deliberative rhetoric can also include private arguments: from questions as trivial as “where should we go for lunch today?” To as important as “should our family accept that job in North Dakota?” and “should Billy join the marines?” These instances of deliberative rhetoric are usually informal—we have a speaker of the house, but we don’t have a speaker of the home. They are, however, no less important. Consider the impact during the 60s and 70s of a hundred thousand private deliberations over how to treat people of other races, or the family debates about moving to the city during the industrial revolution. Private sphere deliberation matters.
Technical deliberation is the deliberative rhetoric that takes place among experts who have specialized knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, you might think about a group might come up with professional standards or expectations like the rules of conduct for lawyers or teachers. They set rules of their own group. Technical deliberation might also result in suggests or recommendations for other groups. A group of climatologists, for example, might write a brief on climate change, or a congress of feminist scholars might make a declaration on pornography, something that everyone argues over until they can agree on a common stance. These experts can debate in a very technical and in-depth register.
When private and technical deliberation can’t get the job done, it’s time for public sphere deliberation. Goodnight classifies the public sphere as the "argument sphere that exists to handle disagreements transcending personal and technical disputes." Once things enter the public sphere of deliberation, Goodnight says it’s time to focus on the common good—not just what’s right for individuals or families, and not just for groups of experts, but for everyone in the public.
And that’s the general gist of deliberative rhetoric.
Thanks for listening. If you like the podcast, why not go on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and leave a nice review? Everyone likes good reviews. Or tell me directly by emailing email@example.com
Wed, 25 May 2016
Crisis looms in ancient Rome: the uneasy triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus rests on thin bonds that seem inevitable to break. The Senate supports Pompey, but Caesar has successfully (and illegally) conquered Gaul, winning wide-spread military support. Everything seems primed for disaster. In fact, in less than a decade, the Great Civil War, the death gasp of the Republic, will spread across the whole breadth of the empire, changing forever the political and social life of Romans. This, of course, is the best time to write a treatise on rhetoric.
Or it is if you happen to be Cicero. Cicero, a political player as well as rhetorician, saw in the dis-ease of Rome a need for leaders who could be well-informed about the issues, but also know how to effectively persuade those around them to order and peace. The risks are high and the need is pressing, both for the empire in general and for Cicero in general—he’s been exiled, his home has been destroyed by political thugs and his life is in danger for criticizing high-ranking leaders, including Ceasar. But he also knows that this isn’t the first time that the Roman world has been rocked by political instability and needed strong leaders versed in rhetoric. So when he sits down to write his rhetorical treatise, he sets it not in the current period (far, far too risky!) but back fifty years ago, just before another civil war would destroy the peace of the Roman Republic.
The dialogue is written almost dramatically as three historical figures gather together in the peace of a patrician home “during the days of the Roman Games”: Lucius Crasses, Marcus Antonius, and Scaevola. They are joined by the young men Sullpicius and Gaius Cotta. Cotta suggests that in this peace “Crassus, why do we not imitate Socrates as he appears in the Phaedrus of Plate? For your plane tree has suggested this comparison to my mind, casting as it does, with its spreading branches, as deep a shade over this pot, as that one cast whose shelter Socrates sought “ (I. vii.28). You might remember from our Pheadrus podcast that Socrates normally engages in dialogues in the city, in the market or gymnasium or private people’s houses, but in the Phaedrus, Socrates gets a little topsy-turvey by going out in nature, giving long speeches instead of dialectic and—most shockingly of all—defending rhetoric. Well, looks like Crassus and Antoius are going to be similarly inspired by the setting to break with tradition—these are powerful Roman men who take action in politics and war and the business of running an empire. They are manly men, not like the Greek philosophers—the unmanly ninny GReekling-- who unambitiously ponder the meaning of things like philosophy and rhetoric instead of taking over the known world. In fact, Crassus seems to even have to describe rhetoric in terms of what it can do in terms of political power. And he starts by telling the most important creation story of the history of rhetoric.
This story, as the legand goes and Crassus relates, starts with “brute creation” and the point that while human beings are slower, and weaker and less deadly than other animals they do have one advantage—they can discourse. So the orator created “our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens, or after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribuals and civic rights?” (I.viii.33). Even today, Crassus says, the orator upholds his own dignity and the safety of “countless individuals and of the entire state.” Scaevola the cynical points out that orators also have caused great disaster to the state.
So the discussion quickly turns to how to educate the orator to be the best kind of person, morally and intellectually, to lead the state towards greatness. Crassus (Cicero stand-in) and Antonio (C’s brother’s stand-in) debate requirements for the good rhetor—is it art or natural ability? It’s less of a clear-cut debate than you’d think, and Antonius sort of switches positions between the first and second book. Generally, both of the agree that “Good speakers bring, as their peculiar possession, a stule that is harmonious, graceful, and marked by a certain artistry and polish. Yet this style, if the underlying subject matter be not comprehended and mastered by the speaker, must inevilably be of no account or even become the sport of universal derision” (I.xi.50). That sport, incidentally, being the fruitless apolitical sophistry of the Greeklings that these political Romans despise.That’s what Crassus calls “Greeklings who are fonder of argument than of truth” But if there’s good content to oratory, then that’s worth while—that’s something that can actually DO something.
But this education, to know everything you speak on, is hard to come by. Should orators be generalists or specialists? All of this takes a lot of “zeal and industry and study” (475), to be “he who on any matter whatever can speak with fullness and variety” (I. xiii.59) because “it is nearer the truth to say that neither can anyone be eloquent upon a subject that is unknowen to him. “ That means lots and lots of study—of Roman laws, above all else, but also on physiology, trade, astronomy grammar, all of it. Antonius, again the fly in the ointment, points out that it would be impossible to develop the kind of breadth that Crassus describes: “I cannont deny that he would be a remarkable kind of man and worth of admiration; but if such a one there should be or indeed ever has been or really ever could be, assuredly you would be that one man.” (I.vxi.) Wow. Ancient Romans had really mastered the art of the compli-insult. Okay, so what is rhetoric, then? Is it a specialized skill that only a few experts master or is it something added on to these other skills? Besides, Antonius observes “not a single writer on rhetoric has been even moderately eloquent” (I.xx.91). that’s a good burn, too, and one that you still here in rhetoric: we study this stuff all the time, so why aren’t we giving the speeches that inspire the world? How can we be so dull when we’re supposed to be experts in this stuff?
Crassus points out that he’s talking about an ideal and that ideal is hard to achieve, maybe even impossibly, but it is important to have the idea “picture to ourselves in our discourse an orator from whom every blemish has been taken away and one who moreover is rich in every merit”—what would that look like? First there would be some physical characteristics—the orator who can’t speak, and speak loudly and clearly, won’t got far. And there whould be a “natural state of looks, expression and voice” for oratory (I.xxvvii.126) and good memory.There should be natural talent, but also passion and willingness to work to improve. This passion for betterment is critical, Crassus muses “What else do you suppose young Cotta, but enthusiasm and something like the passion of love? Without which no man will ever attain anything in life that is out of the common” (I. xxix.134). And even if someone doesn’t have all of these natural abilities, their training can help them to do a little better. “those on whome these gifts have been bestowed by nature in smaller measure, can none the less acquire the power to use what they have with propriety and discernment and so as to show now lack of taste.” (I.xxvii.132). Even if you aren’t the ideal orator, you can get much better with practice.
The next day, the group is joined by Quintus Catulus and Gaius Julius Ceasar. Catulus for his part, argues that Oratorys “derives from ability, but owes little to art” in other words, it’s just a knack after all. This time Antonius fights back, kind of reversing his previous position. Antonius points out that “there are some very clever rules” that can make an audience friendly to a speaker and establish goodwill. But soon the whole conversation focuses back on the importance of being widely educated, especially in law and civil right.
So what are the takeaways from The Orator? Over all it’s a long description of the importance of eloquence.
“Eloquence is dependent upon the trained skill of highly educated men” (7) and “no one should be numbered with the orators who is not accomplished in all those arts” of the well-educated (53), because “excellence in speaking cannot be made manifest unless the speaker fully comprehends the matter” (37). Good will and delivery also emphasized. To educate, imitation comes first (265), then gradually more serious argumentation, although there are rhetorical geniuses. Performance should have genuine emotion behind it (335). There are a variety of acceptable styles (II. 23). (which we’ll talk about in a later episode) and different parts to speech and preparing a speak—and I know it sounds like we’re deferring, but we’ll talk about those in the future too. We have an entire episode prepared for talk about these parts of preparing a speech. Generally, thought, this treatise argues that over all Eloquence “is one of the supreme virtues” (II.43)
But the fact that this treatise talks so seriously about rhetoric and its philosophy is in some way worth remarking on in itself. There’s some jingoistic feelings that manly Roman empire-building is much cooler than sissy Greekling philosophizing going around the culture and De Oratore is no exception that. I always think it’s funny how the speakers in this dialogue go out of their way to insist that they aren’t really sitting around philosophizing, and if they are, it’s only because it’s a state vacation and they kind of have to. The comparison with Plato’s Phaedrus are apt: here are Roman politicians who are acting out of character because of the circumstances and talking like philosophers. But while Cicero has his characters insist that the via activa is paramount, the circumstances suggest otherwise. These politicians are all doomed—the crisis in the Republic is about to reach full swing and soon many of the participants will be dead or exiled. Their political influence will be only fleeting, but Cicero’s dialogue invoking them keeps them relevant. The same could be said for Cicero himself in his own time: a brilliant politician, he was unable to stem the tide of violence as the republic descended into autocracy. Cicero was eventually exiled and then murdered.
He wasn’t just murdered but he was also posthumously beheaded, his hands chopped off and his tongue repeated stabbed with a hairpin. Sort of an ignomous end to a great politician. But Cicero the rhetorician seemingly had no end—the impact of his treatises, including de Oratore, dominated medieval and renaissance rhetoric. So for all of the insistence that sitting around theorize isn’t as important as the work of government, it turns out that theory has the longest-lasting influence. Situating de Oretore in the real violence of the Roman republic demonstrates not only the sometimes futile work of rhetoric, but also how high the stakes are in developing rhetors who are well-educated, balanced, virtuous and eloquent.
Wed, 18 May 2016
Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke by Gregory Clark
Welcome to Mere rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms and movements that shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and if you’ve like to get in touch with me you can email me at mererhetroicpodcast @gmail.com or tweet out atmererhetoricked.
Today on Mere Rhetoric I have the weird experience of doing an episode on someone who isn’t just living, but someone who was my mentor. If you’ve ever had to do a book report on a book your teacher wrote, you understand the feeling. But I really do admire the work of Gregory Clark, especially his seminal work in Burkean Americana. Clark is was been the editor of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly for eight years and recently became the President Elect of the Rhetoric Society in America, which means, among other things, he’s responsible for the RSA conference, like the one I podcasted about earlier this summer. He also wrote a fantastic book called Rhetorical Landscapes inAmerica, that became the foundation for a lot of work that looks that the rhetoricality of things like museums, landscapes and even people.
In the final chapter of Gregory Clark’s Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, he poses the question “where are we now?” (147). We’ve certainly been many wonderful places. In Rhetorical Landscapes, Clark has packed up Kenneth Burke’s identification theory of rhetoric and applied it to the national landscapes of America. Clark suggests that our identity as Americans comes, largely, from our experiences with common landmarks. To demonstrate this power of Burke’s concept of identification, Clark has taken us through more than a century of American tourism, from New York City in the early 19th century to Shaker Country to the Lincoln Memorial Highway. We’ve been convinced by Clark of the rhetorical power of these places to create a national identity. We’ve seen how mountains and parks and even people can evoke a feeling of identification. It’s been a long, lovely ramble by the time we get to Clark’s question. Reading his words, one can’t escape the image of a wanderer who, having ambled through one delightful landscape after another finds himself suddenly disoriented as to his current location. Clark himself describes his project as “a ramble” and it is this apt description that encapsulates both the dizzying strengths of the book (147).
Surely one of the most striking strengths of this ramble is the remarkable company we keep. Clark has brought the human and extremely likable specter of Kenneth Burke along for this meander through American tourism. The Burke of this book has not only provided us with the language of identification in our community of travelers to “change the identities that act and interact with common purpose;” he’s consented to come along with us (3). Clark presents Burke as one who was “himself a persistent tourist in America” (5). Burke very charmingly has written about his traveling “’go go going West, the wife and I/.../ “Go West, elderly couple”’” (qtd. Clark 7). When Burke’s theories of national identification are presented to us chapter-by-chapter, we enjoy their application in the presence of a critic who is not cynically immune to the process of identification, only acutely aware of it. Presented as accessibly and understandable, Clark has written us a Burke we can road trip with.
If Clark has presented for us a clear, insightful and accessible version of Burke through this rambleit is because of his own remarkable prowess as a teacher. He is willing to let Burke be a fellow-traveler with us and he is willing, himself, to join us personally in the ramble. We readers are fortunate to have Clark with us, just as much as we are to have his clear explanations of what Burke would say if the deceased were alongside us. Just as Burke is not immune to the seduction of American tourism, Clark gives us ample insight into how the American landscape affected his own identification as an American as a child. In the chapter on Yellowstone, Clark describes how, as a child from “a marginal place in America” he had been taught that “America was in faraway places like New York or Washington, D. C., or Chicago or California” (69). When Clark first went to Yellowstone National Park, he noticed the variety of license plates in the parking lot and could suddenly feel “at home among all those strangers in a new sort of way—at home in America” (69). While Clark gives us every possible reason to respect him as a serious, meticulous scholar of both rhetoric and American tourism history, he never lets us forget that he, like Burke, like us, is also another tourist in awe of the places we define as quintessentially American.
With knowledgeable and accessible teachers like Burke and Clark at our sides, we readers feel comfortable seeing how we, too, fit into this landscape. While the scope of the book covers the extremely formidable years of American nation-making (from the days of “these” United States to when the country is solidly coalesced into “the” United States), the institutions then established are still foremost in the psyche of Americans of all generations. Readers of Rhetorical Landscapes in America will be hard-pressed to read a chapter without immediately applying the Burkean theories to their own individual experiences with these ensigns of American identity. Have you been to NYC? Have you been told that you have to see Yellowstone? All of these places are part of how we structure our American identity.
Where are we going? Working topically, vaguely chronologically, Clark and Burke accompany us through New York City, Shaker country, Yellowstone, The Lincoln Highway, the Panama-Pacific world’s fair and the Grand Canyon. It’s almost like a car game on a long road trip: okay, what do these six things have in common? While each of these locations lead themselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a touring American (eg, in the chapter Shaker country we discover how guides to the region have lead to identification “not with the Shakers, but with the other touring Americans who gather to wonder at the spectacle the Shakers create” and thus objectified Shakers), (52). Including a city, a people, a park, a road, an event and a building in a park could arguably be a way to expand the definition of the “landscape.”
Why are we rambling through these American landscapes with Burke and Clark, after all? The argument appears to be, after all, to situate a Big Rhetoric theory of identification into a series of Big Rhetoric artifacts—so big, in fact, that it includes mountains and highways. Those who are resistant to wholeheartedly adopting Burke’s expansion of rhetoric to include not just persuasion, but also identification, will find Clark’s scope of artifacts as unconvincing; those who are frosty towards opening the canon of rhetoric past the spoken word, and past the written word into the very land we travel will bristle at the idea of giving something as Big Rhetoric as a city, a people, a landscape a “meaning.” These two groups of reader are by-and-large impervious to the convincing and meticulous readings that Clark provides of these locations. They’ve already made up their minds and aren’t likely to change them, despite the quality of Clark’s argument.
Clark and Burke are observant, meticulous and personable traveling companions, This is an excellent book, one that opens up rhetoric to more than just written texts, but something that can encompass views and groups of people as well. I love thinking about the implications of place on national identity and I’m not the only one: scholars from Diane Davis to Ekaterina Haskin have taken up the idea of how a tour of places and spaces and people can create an argument for national identity. So when you come back from your summer vacation this year, think about not just what you saw, but who it made you become.
Wed, 11 May 2016
What’s the difference between writing and composition? Writing, we think we know what that is: it’s maybe typing out letters on a computer screen, or maybe it’s holding a pen above a legal pad. But what if writing is bigger than that? What if it’s also the prewriting that takes place in your brain, as you drive around town or play racquetball or stare into space? And how about composition? What does that mean? It’s not just writing so could it be arranging speech, or images or even moving bodies? Is dance part of composition? Jody Shipka’s landmark text, Towards a Composition Made Whole, expands our understanding of what we mean when we say “writing and composition.” Today on Mere Rhetoric.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like to give a shout out to our sponsors at the Univesity of Texas Humanities Media Project for their support, but today’s topic is right up their alley too--what are the limits of humanities and media?
Shipka is sick and tired of the way that two words are deeply misused in the feild of rhetoric and composition. The first is the word composition itself. Composition, Shipka argues, does not have to be text-based media. Shipka is a proponent of teaching students to compose in a broad sense--using images, music, dance and motion alongside words and letters to create meaning. Drawing on Cheryl Ball Shipka sums up resistence to non-print composition in that “texts are often labeled experimental when (or simply because) audiences are not used to recognizing their meaning-making strategies” (133).
That leads to the other term that Shipka takes issue to--technology. If composition is often view in very conservative terms as something done with pen and paper or a computer, technology is perhaps too-hot. Technology, Shipka claims, does not equal digital. The ferver for “technology” can be just as bad as a prejudice towards newfangled technology. In her words, “I am concerned that emphasis placed on ‘new’ (meaning digital) technologies has led to a tendency to equate terms like multimodal, intertextual, multi-media, or still more broadly speaking, composition with the production and consumption of computer-based, digitalized, screen-mediated texts” (8) and “we have allowed ourselves to trade in one bundle of texts and techniques for another: pro-verbal for pro-digital” (11).
Technologies are only seen as technologies as long as they are difficult and electronic, she argues, while other methods of multimodal composition can be as or more effective while employing other means. The example that Shipka leads the book with concerns an essay written by a dance student on a pair of ballet slippers. The essay was researched, ‘composed’ and transcribed in a way that uses multiple approaches, but nothing that needs a cord. She quotes Wertsch that “all activity is mediated by tools, whether by psychological tools and/or by technical tools such as hammers, nails [etc]” (43). Elsewhere she writes “when our scholarship fails to consider, and when our practices do not ask students to consider, the complex and highly distributed processes associated with the production of texts (and lives and people), we run the risk of overlooking the fundamentally multimodal aspects of all communicative practice” (13). Okay, and one more quote just to really underline her position: “ “To label a text multimodal or nonmodal based on its final appearance alone discounts, or worse yet, renders invisible the contributions made by a much wider variety of resources, supports, and tools.” This understanding of how we mediate even when we use “analogue” technology lets us expand our concept of buzzwords like “multimedia” and “multimodal.”
These two terms lay the groundwork for what she suggests in her manifesto: a composition made whole, with all processes, projects and media enveloped in the process of composition. In her words “A composition made whole recognizes that whether or not a particular classroom or group of students are wired, students may still be afforded opportunities to consider how they are continually positioned in ways that require them to read, respond to, align with… a steaming interplay of words, images, sounds, scents, and movements” (21).
Something about Shipka’s work is extremely freeing, both in our research and in our pedagogy--we can expand our work to anything. But it’s also terrifying--what do I know about document design? about video production? about dance? This same free fall feeling comes when I read about the processes Shipka describes her composers taking. Here in A Composition Made Whole she talks about the process of writing in a big way, similar to how big her definition of composition is. This part reminds me of a chapter that she co-authored with Paul Prior in another place. What Prior and Shipka did was to give their participants a piece of paper and have them draw their writing spaces and their writing practices. What they found is that people’s writing practice goes far beyond the “prewriting, writing, rewriting” steps that we often inculcate our students with. Objects like cigarettes, cats and washing machines and activities like talking over beer, walking the dog and calling a friend become part of the writing process.
Shipka describes some of these writers’ processes in a a composition made whole. For instance, when a writer goes for a run to clear her mind, “what might otherwise look like nonwork--taking a break from the task at hand--functioning as an integral part of the composer’s overall process” (60).
This creates some messy borders of a process we simplify in our research and teaching. If taking a run is part of the compositing process, what else is part? What can be excluded? I found this a difficult question to ask when I began keeping track of my time while working on my dissertation. If was I reading a text or coding data, that was definitely just as much a part of writing my dissertation as putting words on the paper. Meeting with my advisor? Yes. Talking it out with my mom? yes… Thinking about it on a run? I think. Thinking about it when I’m driving?...maybe? It can hard to say for sure what 40 hours a week of academic work looks like because it’s so dispersed. If our students say they have to clean their apartment, or walk the dog or watch six episodes of Broadchurch in a row before they can write the paper, it’s hard to say whether this is part of their writing process or a procrastination effort.
Wed, 4 May 2016
Dewey Part Deuce
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric. Or maybe welcome back, because last week we talked about John Dewey and today we’re talking about John Dewey again. You don’t have to go back and listen to the last week’s episode on Dewey and aesthetics, but if you like this, Dewey part the Deuce, then you migh want to go check out the previous episode on Dewey and the artful life. Today, today thought,we get to talk about Dewey’s political and educational contributions.
Dewey was a huge fan of democracy and of education for democracy. He said, “Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous."
One scholar summarized Dewey’s politics in this way: “First, Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal rather than merely a political arrangement. Second, he considered participation, not representation, the essence of democracy. Third, he insisted on the harmony between democracy and the scientific method: ever-expanding and self-critical communities of inquiry, operating on pragmatic principles and constantly revising their beliefs in light of new evidence, provided Dewey with a model for democratic decision making…Finally, Dewey called for extending democracy, conceived as an ethical project, from politics to industry and society.” Dewey was big on democracy. this idea, especially about participation in democracy instead of just representation inspired much of his writing in education. The kind of progressive education that Dewey endorsed was education for democracy, education that focused on making student empathetic and engaged citizens.
Dewey’s most articulate thinking about engaged democracy comes as most good thinking does: in response to an interlocutor whose ideas make our blood boil. For Dewey this was Walter Lippmann. the famous Lippmann-Dewer debates begne in 1922 when Walter Lippmann wrote s book called Public Opinion. In Public Opinion, Lippman says that democracy is demo-crazy--public opinion is actually shaped by adverstisers and demogogues who can manipulate the public into thinking what ever they want. The people as a whole can’t make any decision that hasn’t already been made by sleezy Madison Ave. types. So Lippman says that instead the government should be led by experts, preferably scientitic and objective types who would be immune to propaganda. Instead of democracy romantically conceived, he suggested representation and political experts.
Well this got Dewey’s goat and in The Public and its Problems, he responded to Lippmann’s view of democracy. Instead of relying on experts for democracy, Dewey recommends that “"it is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns." Sure, he admitted, there could be ignorant publics swayed by propaganda, but the solution was not to toss the baby with the sludgewater--education was what the populace needed if they were to engage in participatory democracy.
The Dewey Lippmann Debate has gotten a lot of press from recent rhetoricians. Search for it on Google scholar and you’ll find over a thousand entries since 2011. In the 2008 meeting of the Rhetorical Society of America, a “lively panel” discussion took place where, according to one witness “Jean Goodwin effectively advanced journalist Walter Lippmann’s critique of the “omnicompetent” citizen against Robert Asen’s John Dewey, who represented hope for collaborative dialogue.” And in the most recent meeting of the Modern Language Association, another scholar pointed out how the Lippmann-Dewey debate relates to the current expert-laden political rhetoric. A recent collection of essays on called Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice, Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark, eds. also reminds us of the perrential importance of asking ourselves “Are our citizens trained for democracy? Can they be?” The debate, so it seems, continues.
The kind of education you would need to particpate in democracy includes not just information about the value of nuclear energy or the political history of the middle east: you need to have some sense of how you fit in to a democracy, what the moral obligations you have and what the society can provide you.
For Dewey, America’s ideal model of civic engagement wasn’t a selfish, me-first mentality, but neither was it entirely collective and socialist. In Individualism Old and New, Dewey says it’s time to move past the old, rugged, wild-west homesteader kind of individualism that theAmericans he was writing to could possibly remember, or at least could remember stories of their parents and grandparents. while his audience of early 20th century Americans idealized that kind of independence, they were also increasingly aware of how to connect. The experience of world war have taught them that “Most social unifications come about in response to external pressure” (11) and “personal participation in the development of a shared culture” (17). Defining that interconnectivity against the struggles and hardships of war and poverty may seem intutive but the move from frontier rugged individualism to an individualism that recognizes our interconnectivitity is at the core of Dewey’s political philosophy.“Each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence around this garden” (82).
Now just so you know that last week’s episode on the aesthetic of Dewey wasn’t totally separated fromt his sort of thing, Dewey also talked about how that “shared sulture” happens through art, and how this art educates, cultivating the skills that are necessary for democracy: “The art which our times needs in order to create a new type of individuality is the art which, being sensitive to the technology and science that are the moving force of our time, will envisage the expansive, the social culture which they may be made to serve” (49). Or, another way, “The work of art is the truly individual thing” (81).
Wed, 27 April 2016
Today on Mere Rhetoric, we talk about John Dewey. John Dewey was a big ol’ deal, even back in his day. Just after his death in 1952, Hilda Neaby wrote”Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages, not just a philosopher, but the philosopher.”
And what does a person have to do to be compared to Aristotle? I mean to be compared in a serious way to Aristotle, because I’m like Aristotle because, you know, I enjoy olive oil on occasions, not because I’m the philosopher. I think one thing Neaby means is that Dewey was involved in everything. Just like how Aristotle had huge impact in politics, theology, science and rhetoric, John Dewey seemed to have a finger in every pie. By the time he died at age 92, he had written significantly on education, politics, art, ethics and sociology. But it’s not enough to be a big freakin’ deal a hundred years ago, but Dewey is a big deal in rhetoric today. It’s rare to search too many issues back in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly or Rhetoric and Public Affairs without hitting on an article either directly about or draws on Dewey, and books about Dewey are popping up all over the map. John Dewey is hot real estate.
So because John Dewey is such an important thinker for rhetoricians today, we have to take more time than today to talk about him. That’s right-- a Mere Rhetoric two-parter. A to-be-continued. A cliffhanger. If that cliff is carefully divided, I guess and that division is this: today we’ll talk about John Dewey’s contribution to aesthetics, his book Art as Experience and responses to that book from contemporary rhetoricans. Next week we’ll talk more about his politics, the dream of his pragmatism, what he means by Individualism Old and New and the famous Dewey-Lippmann debate. So that’s what we’ll be doing the next two weeks. So let’s get started on the first part of this Dewey-twoey.
Like many great thinkers, Dewey started his career by realizing that what he thought he wanted to do, he really, really didn’t. In Dewey’s case it was education. It’s ironic that Dewey became one of the 20th century’s most important voices in education because he did not teach secondary or primary school for longer than a couple of years each. Good thing he had a back-up plan as a major philosopher. He joined the ground floor of the University of Chicago and became one of the defining voices of the University of Chicago style of thinking, although he eventually left, somewhat acrimoniously, and taught at Columbia for the rest of his career. Somewhere along the way, though, he became president of the American philosophical association and published Art as Experience.
The title kind of gives away Dewey’s claim--he situates art in the experience which you have with art. As he says “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience” (1). But he also means the opposite, that experience can be art. Instead of thinking of art as something that happens in rarified situations behind glass and velvet ropes, Dewey opens up “art” to mean popular culture, experiences with nature and even just a way of living.
Being in the moment is a big part of this artful living. If you’re experiencing or rather, to use the particular philosophical parlance Dewey insists on “having an experience” then you are totally being in the moment: “only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturning is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what is now is” (17). In such a view, any time we live the moment artfully, in full presence of being, we’re having an artful experience.
In having an experience, you have some sort of awareness and some kind of form.
As Dewey says, “art is thus prefigured in the very processes of life” (25).
This idea may sound radical. How can sitting in a crowded bus be art the way that the Mona Lisa is art? But Dewey is insistent. He sighs, “the hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived” (27-28).
That’s not to say that there can’t be objects of art that concentrate the sensation of having an experience. But it’s the whole experience. For example, “Reflections on Tintern Abbey” isn’t really about Tintern Abbey any more than it’s about Wordworth and evenings and homecomings and 1798 and that sycamore and all of it. It expresses a complete experience of Wordsworth. And that expression is always changing as times change.“the very meaning,” Dewey writes “of an important new movement in any art is that it expresses something new in human experience” (316). Meanwhile the art that remains after the moment passes and the movement becomes cliche. “Art is the great force in effecting [...] consolidation. The individuals who have minds pass away one by one. The works in which meanings have received objective expression endure. [...] every art in some manner is a medium of this transmission while its products are no inconsiderable part of the saturating matter” (340)
And the value of art is moral. First off, Dewey says that“The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic’s office is to further this work, performed by the object of art” (338).
Pretty cool stuff, huh? But wait, there’s more. The process of having an experience, that complete being, has its own moral value, or so argues Scott Stroud in John Dewy and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, aesthetics and morality. There he claims “I want to examine how art can be seen as a way of moral cultivation” (3) because“At various places, Dewey’s work provides us with tantalizing clues to his real project--the task of making more of life aesthetic or artful” (5) Put in other words: “art can show individuals how certain value schemes feel, how behaviors affect people, etc.--in other words, art can force the reflective instatement (creation) of moral values” (9)
Stroud connects the pragmatists like Dewey with mysticism in Eastern philosophy and medieval monastic Christianity. Remember how Dewey is all about having an experience, really being in the moment? So Stroud says, “The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated bahits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals” (11).
“The important point,” writes Stroud, “is that attentiveness to the present is a vital way to cultivate the self toward the goal of progressive adjustment and it is also a vital means in the present to do so” (69)
For Stroud, as for Dewey“the art object [...] imbued with meaning partially by the actions of the artist, but also because of the crucial contributions of meaning that a common cultural background contributes to the activity of producing and receiving art objects” (97)--the way that the artistic object is received popularly and by critics. And for that aim “criticism does more than merely tell one what an important work of art is or what impression was had; instead, it gives one a possible orientation that is helpful in ordering and improving one’s past and future experiences” (122). And in that, criticism, or even appreciation, is also a moral act.
Stroud’s argument has immediate application of the artful life. He ponders “How can we render everyday communication, such as that experiences in mundane conversations with friends, cashiers, and so on, as aesthetic?” (170). To answer this, he draws on dewey to suggest that we avoid focusing on a remote goal, cultivate habits of attending to the demands of the present communication situation and fight against the idea of reified, separate self (186-7).
Wed, 20 April 2016
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, Jacob is in the booth and the Humanities Media Project is making this all possible.
Quick note: this is a rebroadcast, so you might want to take the next couple of sentences with a grain of salt. That is all. Starting…now.
We’ve spent this month talking about the villains of rhetoric, but since mere rhetoric isn’t just abtout rhetoric, today we’re going to talk about one of the villains of composition. But first
Mere Rhetoric is now at your disposal for feedback! You can check us out on Twitter @mererhetoricked or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org send in suggestions, feedback, questions— and I’ll try to answer them because every question is a rhetorical question. And of course I want to shout out the University of Texas RSA student chapter for their support of this podcast. I’m, as ususal, Mary Hedengren.
Today’s villain is not one mustache-twirler, but the very most villainous type of villain: the committee. And even worse than a committee is a report written by a committee. The villans of compositions are often reports written by committee, and the first major villainous report in question goes all the way back to the 19th century Harvard Reports.
Harvard, the site of the very first frist- year composition classes, was also the place where complaints about those freshman were most acutely embattled. Because Harvard was, you know, Haaahvaaad, it pioneered an entrance exam for its applicants. Soon, preparatory schools were gleefully teaching to the test, a test which, however well it kept out the riff raff, was woefully inadequate in, well, helping students learn how to write. Soon these students entered actual classes at Harvard or any of the copycat schools that required an entrance exam, these students having learned only the minutia of grammatical correctness, pedantary and the art of the all-night cram-fest, were dismayed to discover they couldn’t in fact write.
Their instructors were the more distraught by the realization, not least because there were dreadful lot of terrible writers to be taught. The late 19th century saw a boom in educational enrollment, the likes of which are inadequately compared to increases post-WWII or in the 70s. Albert Kitzhaber reports that in 1894, more than a thousand students at Univeristy of Michage were served by a staff of 4 full time teachers and 2 part-time graduate instructors. That means not only was the writing often awful, but there was an awful lot of awful writing. So there was a crisis—Quick! To a committee!
The report that Harvard’s committee wrote compained “It is obciously absurd that the College—the institution of higher education-should be called upon to turn aside from its proper functions [those are left un specified by the way] and deovte its means ad the time of its instructors to the task of imparting elementary instruction which should be given even in ordinary grammar schools, much more in those higher academic instituions intended to prepare slect youth for a university ocourse” (44) According to Kitzhaber, it goes on in that same tone and he reports drily that “there was a good deal of sarcasm in the Report. (45).
“It is little less tha absurd to suggest ath any human being who can be taught to talk cannot likewise be taught to compose,” fumed the report “writing is merely the bait of talk with the pen instead of which the tongue!” The report grumpily pointed the finger at the lower schools for not preparing students better, and suggested raising the standard for admissions even higher. In total, three reports were issued from Harvard: 1892, 1895 and 1897. The three castigated the lower schools for “the growing illiteracy of American boys” and urged more mechanicall correctness from preparatory schools.
There’s nothing new about complaining about the awful writing of freshmen. Complaining about lazy, illiterate students is one of the oldest and most time-honored traditions of teachers, alongside wearing silly hats for official ceremonies and calling people you hate “my esteemed colleague.” What made the Harvard Reports so villainous was the immese influence they had in 19th century America.
These reports spread all over America, creating a sense of crisis in the popular press. Eventually the US government took not and in response to this crisis—wait for it—appointed a committee. This committee saught to standardize entrance exams and require more writing in the secondary schools. In the end, the Harvard reports had succeeded in creating a sense of crisis and creating action to address the crisis, lifting standards “by the hair of the head” as Fred Newton Scott said. Still, all they had done was ensure that the superficial complaints that these teachers and administrators had were the only complaints to be addressed.
A focus on mechanical correctness has dogged composition ever since. Every few decades, newspapers and magazines will find that some percentage of college graduates are dangling their participles and the education world will find itself again playing the blame game. It happened again in 1975 with NEwseeek’s incidenary article “Why Johnny can’t Write” which again highlighted “the illiuteracy of American boys” (why don’t these reports ever concern themselves with girls’ inability to diagram a sentence, I leave to the audience to deduce). “Why Johnny can’t write” led to further committes, further reports and further books all declaring a “back to bascis” curriculum, where basics meant the identification of linguistics terms. This coninutes today. While searching for a copy of the original “why Johnny can’t write” I found an article published on the nbc website in 2013 that starts with the sentence:
Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?
If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.
Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and to write clearly.
The reporter seems to have made a sudden slip—can you spot it? She’s jumped from the skills of identitying a pronoun or punctuating a possessive to the “inablitiy to speak and write clearly”. Sadly, I do not believe this will be the last article to make a similar leap and for that matter, we don’t see the end of that sort of reasoning in books or committee reports.
We can’t blame the Hardard reports of the 1890s specifically—maybe these complaints are just eh easiest writing errors to identify and castigate—but whenever an English major is confronted with a horrified acquaintance who says “I better watch my grammar in front of you” we’re dealing with some of the popular fall out from the 19th Century Harvard reports.