KEY QUESTIONS FOR A NEW RHETORIC*

Most U.S. scholars of rhetoric and writing studies who are around my age have a story to tell about how and when they discovered rhetoric, and I am certainly no exception to that rule. I started teaching at a two-year college in Florida in 1968, after completing my MA in English and teaching in high school for a couple of years. A year later or two, the dean of the college asked me to write some guides for students to use in writing papers for the required composition courses. I spent the entire summer working on this project and ended up with little booklets on Writing an Expository Essay, Writing a Descriptive Essay, Writing a Narrative Essay, Writing a Persuasive Essay, and—what I was especially proud of—Writing a Combination Essay. I had figured out how to write these booklets by finding essays in these modes and analyzing them, breaking them down into steps, and then trying to guide students through that process. I did this completely by instinct: I was utterly without training in the teaching of writing, having exempted the required courses at my university, having gone through a one-half-day training session before I became a Teaching Assistant during my MA program, and having taught only literature in high school. So I was fairly proud of coming up with something to say about how to write various kinds of college papers.

Pride, as they say, goeth before a fall. And one day that fall, after the school year started and I had presented the little booklets to my dean, I was sitting in my little cubicle office when I received a complimentary book from Oxford University Press. It was titled Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, by Edward P. J. Corbett. I knew absolutely nothing about rhetoric, classical or otherwise, so I took the book home with me and started to read—and to discover rhetoric. What I found, of course, was that I had no need to invent everything in those little booklets from scratch: here before me was a systematic account of the arts of communication, one that had been around for over two thousand years. I tell this story to remind myself, and others, that the “old” rhetoric was entirely new to me and, indeed, the “old” or traditional rhetoric has a way of becoming new to successive generations of students and scholars. The next year I got up my courage to apply to Ph.D. programs, and on the top of my list was Ohio State University, where Professor Corbett taught. I studied there for five years and became the first person at that university to take a specialty in rhetoric and writing studies, though I pretty much had to do this all in directed reading sessions with Professor Corbett, who was not teaching graduate courses on rhetoric when I got there. The tradition I studied with Ed Corbett was decidedly “old”: I worked my way chronologically from Plato and Aristotle up to Chaim Perelman and Kenneth Burke, and by the time I left Ohio State for the University of British Columbia in 1977, a number of graduate students were choosing to pursue specialties in rhetoric and writing. In 1987 I returned to Ohio State to help build the undergraduate and graduate program in rhetoric and writing within the Department of English. Today that university has 14 scholars professing rhetoric and writing, a writing minor at the undergraduate level, a full graduate program, a Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing— all in addition to the required first-year writing program.

Ohio State’s program is typical of a number of large state universities in the United States, where the revival of rhetoric in the 1960s (this was the “new” rhetoric of the time) took hold most strongly. What characterized those early programs was a deep commitment to undergraduate education and to access to that education for all students; a recognition that the ancient art of rhetoric (which Aristotle defined both as “the art of discovering in any case all the available means of persuasion” and as “the art and practice of coming to sound judgment”) provided a robust theoretical and historical foundation for the teaching of writing, and a determination to achieve disciplinary status for the field of rhetoric and writing studies, then widely referred to as “composition and rhetoric.” What is new in this rendition of the rhetorical tradition, then, is the very self-conscious linking of rhetoric with writing or composition. In retrospect, it’s clear that as the cultural capital of writing grew (beginning in the age of the printing press and reaching a crescendo in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), the fortunes of rhetoric declined. What counted was not the eloquence of old but what could be put in writing. As a result, colleges turned away from the “old” rhetorical tradition, which had focused on students composing and performing their own discourses and increasingly to controlled instruction in correct writing and, primarily, to reading, to hermeneutics, and to the consumption rather than the production of discourse. So what was “new” in the 60s and 70s revival of rhetoric was, at least in part, an attempt to return to the old tradition and to concentrate on the actual discursive practices and products of student writers.1 Not coincidentally, this “new” rhetoric with its commitment to student writing was to form the basis for a new discipline, which Robert Connors calls Composition-Rhetoric.

In some ways, these goals have been met in the U.S., sometimes even spectacularly so. Today, several book series (such as those at the University of Pittsburgh Press and Southern Illinois University Press) and dozens of journals are devoted to rhetoric and writing, and at least one of them—College Composition and Communication—is harder to publish in than the PMLA. Scores of intensive Ph.D. programs in rhetoric and writing criss-cross the country, and an ever-growing number of conferences—from the Rhetoric Society of America, to Feminisms and Rhetorics—now make it impossible for any scholar to attend them all. And even the so-called Ivy League Schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have begun writing programs for undergraduates. At Stanford, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric teaches two required courses for all students, offers several undergraduate elective courses in writing and rhetoric as well as at least two graduate courses every year (I am currently teaching a graduate seminar on rhetoric’s fourth canon, Memoria). Such successes are at best only partial, however: writing and rhetoric is still a marginalized field faced with a series of daunting challenges, and many U.S. scholars would agree, I think, that the future of the discipline depends on responding to these challenges in ways that will help to create and maintain yet another “new” rhetoric.

First among these challenges is location: Where within the university should a “new” rhetoric be housed and what should be its institutional affiliations and responsibilities? In the U.S., these questions are very much up for grabs. Most programs in rhetoric and writing remain within Departments of English (or occasionally Departments of Communications), but the last decade has seen a growing trend for rhetoric and writing to separate and form departments of their own that offer both undergraduate and graduate courses. These new departments do not yet have a firm core: some focus on professional discourse, some on literacy and language, some on media, some on history, some on technology, and writing, and some try for an omnibus approach that would bring all these strands together. What is lost in such a move to new departments, of course, is the connection to reading and literature, which remain in Departments of English. What is gained, however, is a chance to establish disciplinary power within university structures and to create programs and courses responsive to student needs in the 21st century. My own sense is that such new departments will continue to proliferate and that in doing so the outlines of an undergraduate major in rhetoric and writing will grow ever more clear. But I have some doubts, not about departments of rhetoric and writing per se, but about departments in general: it seems clear that disciplinary boundaries are crumbling, that the old framework of departments, based on the 19th century German system, is no longer adequate for the work scholars need to do, and that some other structure needs to arise (a sign of this is the exponential growth of interdisciplinary centers and institutes). So a “new” department of rhetoric and writing may find itself “old” fairly shortly.

No matter where rhetoric and writing is located, the field faces other serious challenges and opportunities, chief among them the relationship to new technologies. When I think of the changes I have seen in my lifetime, my head fairly swims. When I won the ninth grade typing medal in my junior high school, I did it on a manual typewriter, the kind you had to literally pound. As an undergraduate, I had the luxury of a little portable manual typewriter: not until graduate school did I sink into the pleasures of the IBM selectric. At the age of 63, then, I am old enough to take a long view of the history of writing and rhetoric’s connection to technology, one that did little to prepare me for the learning curve I faced when I got my first computer in 1985.

Since then I have become more proficient—and I am still a rocket-fast keyboarder thanks to that ninth-grade drilling. But I am still very much a learner of the new media, one who is almost daily surprised by how writing and the teaching of writing have changed in the thirty years of my career. Every few years, a new body of literature needs to be learned, a new set of practices and a new kind of teaching mastered. I realize as I look back over my career that I and other teachers of writing and rhetoric have had to reinvent ourselves and our discipline several times, and that more change is definitely in sight. Thus the newest “new” rhetoric is one that is deeply mediated, deeply technologized. In fact, writing is one of the western world’s oldest technologies and rhetoric, plastic art that it is, has consistently transformed itself in relation to new and emerging technologies. Today, this ability to mold itself to new realities is key to the new rhetoric, presenting special challenges, and special opportunities for those who profess rhetoric and writing.

No change has been more significant than the return of orality, performance, and delivery to the field of rhetoric and writing and to the classroom. As noted above, in the U.S., the increasing hegemony of writing throughout the nineteenth century had hidden the body and performance from critical view and shifted attention away from oral and embodied delivery to textual production of the printed page. Beginning in the mid twentieth century, however, and growing exponentially in the last two decades, the arts and crafts associated with delivery, the fifth canon of rhetoric, have moved to the center of our discipline. To view writing as an active performance, that is as an act always involving the body and performance—enriches I. A. Richards’s notion of the interinanimation of words: it is not only that individual words shift meaning given their context within a sentence, but also that words shift meaning given their embodied context and their physical location in the world. Calling attention to this phenomenon raises our awareness of the power language gains through physical interaction and exchange, and it transforms our understanding of Kenneth Burke’s definition of humans as “symbol-using, symbol-misusing animals.” To be human is to speak and write and perform through multiple systems of signification and to inhabit not only what Walter Ong calls “secondary orality,” a term associated with the electric technologies that make possible the phenomenon of 24/7 surround-sound split-screen cable-TV culture but also “secondary literacy,” a term I use to name a literacy that is both highly inflected by oral forms, structures, and rhythms and highly aware of itself as writing, understood as variously organized and mediated systems of signification. In this scene of secondary orality and secondary literacy, student writers must be able to think critically and carefully about how to deliver the knowledge they produce. Yet in the U.S., we are still only marginally prepared to help them do so. It is as though our old reliable rhetorical triangle of writer, reader, and message is transforming itself before our eyes, moving from three discrete angles to a shimmering, humming, dynamic set of performative relationships. And in this scene, writing favors immediacy, quickness, associative leaps, and a fluid and flexible sense of correctness—akin to what Winston Weathers long ago described as Grammar B. As I’m using it, then, secondary literacy advances a looser prose style, infiltrated by visual and aural components to mirror the agility and shiftiness of language filtered through and transformed by digital technologies and to allow for, indeed demand, performance. To describe such literacies, we need more expansive definitions of writing along with a flexible critical vocabulary and a catalogue of the writing and rhetorical situations that call for amplified, performative, and embodied discourse of many different kinds.

The Read/Write Weblog notes, in late April, 2005, that “neither ‘read’ nor ‘write’ really means what it used to when we talk about literacy or being literate.” My colleague Marvin Diogenes and I have talked endlessly about what I’m calling our “vocabulary problem,” and eventually we tried our hand at defining writing in a way that does not mirror the reductiveness of current dictionary definitions: Writing: A technology for creating conceptual frameworks and creating, sustaining, and performing lines of thought within those frameworks, drawing from and expanding on existing conventions and genres, utilizing signs and symbols, incorporating materials drawn from multiple sources, and taking advantage of the resources of a full range of media. For all its clumsiness, this definition aims to capture the sense of writing I am trying to evoke—of a new rhetoric and writing as epistemic, performative, multivocal, multimodal, and multi-mediated.

One scholar who has been hard at work trying to create a more flexible critical vocabulary for writing and rhetoric is Tara Shankar, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her dissertation, “Speaking on the Record,” Shankar traces the increasing power of writing, which she terms graphocentrism, noting that writing eventually became “the primary outlet for the most elitist uses of languages in many cultures.” She argues that the domination of print-based writing is now at an end and introduces a set of terms aimed at clarifying communicative relationships. To begin, she defines literacy as “the knowledge of language, domains of experience, and structure of discourse that permit one to use language as an object for learning reflection and analysis” and distinguishes this from Seymour Papert’s term letteracy, the “mechanical and presentational skills specific to writing.” This she contrasts with prosodacy, oral decoding and encoding abilities that indicate awareness of ways in which situated intentions, emotion, identity, and expression can be realized in and through the repleteness of spoken language.” Into this mix she adds the key term spriting. By “sprite,” a portmanteau combining speaking and writing, Shankar means speaking that “yields two technologically supported representations: the speech in audible form, and the speech in visual form. Spriting, therefore, equally encompasses digital speech recorders, speech editing tools, and any speech dictation recognition tools that would use speech in addition to text as an output mode.” The product of spriting she identifies as a spoken document, or talkument. As one reads a written text, she says, so one audes a talkument.

Much later in this fascinating dissertation, Shankar introduces spriting to two elementary schools and studies the collaborative “talkuments” the children produce using “SpriterWriter,” a system for composing and editing talkuments. Finding that students produce talkuments collaboratively with the greatest of ease, Shankar concludes that “Spriting seems to admit even closer, more integral collaborations than does writing, perhaps because spriting can more easily incorporate conversation as both planning and composition material.” Even more provocative to me, Shankar finds that “when children are released from the representational strictures of paper and pencil to compose language, they do not just talk their words, they sing their words. . . . . They sing pure sound and rhythm, words, advertisements, school songs, popular songs and television theme songs with equal abandon.” That is to say, they perform.

Shankar is not alone in her attention to performance. Recently, in fact, Jon Udell has called for performative literacies to become the basis for writing programs in the United States. In a discussion of the power of screencasting, Udell says “Writing and editing will remain the foundation skills they always were (and Shankar would agree), but we’ll increasingly combine them with speech and video.” Teachers, however, can scarcely wait, however, for our own community, much less our society, to refine and accept such new terminologies or to perfect the tools and techniques necessary to them.

While this work goes on, whatever we call what our students are doing is racing ahead of our ability to describe it. So what’s a poor writing program to do? In the face of the enormous changes to literacies, Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric has been challenged to add a second required course to the Stanford curriculum. This new course, which we implemented fully during this last school year, has a complex mandate. In it, students are to build on the rhetorical analysis, research, and argument abilities that they practiced in their first writing course (and delivered primarily in traditional print forms) by continuing to carry out substantive research and develop compelling argumentative positions. But the course shifts focus from invention, arrangement, and style to rhetoric’s fifth canon, delivery. Last September, the entire PWR faculty met for a week to work on this new PWR 2 course, and we ended the week exhilarated and enthusiastic about our goals:

• To build on the analytic and research-based argument strategies developed in PWR 1 through more intensive work with oral, visual, and multimedia rhetoric; • To identify, evaluate, and synthesize materials across a range of media and to explore how to present these materials effectively in support of the students’ own arguments; • To analyze the rhetoric of oral, visual, and multimedia documents with attention to how purpose, audience, and context help shape decisions about format, structure, and persuasive appeals; • To learn to design appropriate and effective oral and multimedia texts; • To conduct research appropriate to the specific documents being created; • To reflect systematically on oral, visual, and multimedia rhetoric and writing.

We decided to pursue these goals through an assignment sequence that would be standard across our many different themed sections. We’d begin with an assignment we called “texts in translation,” one that asked students to take a fairly brief text and translate it from one form of delivery to another, to analyze the rhetorical strategies operative in the two versions, and then present their findings to the class. This assignment would, we hoped, set the stage for a multimedia research-based argument, one that would include substantive writing, research, collaboration, and delivery of the argument in one or more media. This assignment would take up most of five to six weeks of the course and might include various steps such as a proposal, documentation of research, several drafts, and the final live delivery of the project. The final major project would ask students to create a reflective essay that essentially analyzed their work in the course, noting how various media shaped their writing, how their rhetorical choices were affected by various media, how they used a new medium effectively in the presentation of research. This final meta-analysis would often lead to the third major class presentation. As an aside, let me say that, early on, we faced the challenge of how to allow our students to “draft” their presentations in the same way they draft print essays. To address this issue, we developed a core of undergraduate tutors, one or two of whom are attached to each section. The tutors, who take a special training course, observe and respond extensively to the students’ practice presentations and help with taping the presentations for further discussion and analysis.

Now had we not been in such a state of euphoria, we would have noticed that this set of goals and assignments is, at the very least, daunting. And certainly our experience in trying to carry out one of our own assignments during a one-week institute held in September 2004 should have alerted us to the difficulty of what we were planning to do. We plunged into teaching PWR 2 with abandon, however: in retrospect it’s easy to see that we were to some extent dazzled by the possibilities presented to us, especially in the tech classrooms our Academic Technology Specialist specially designed for the PWR 2 classes. We and our students can do it all, we thought.

And indeed, we managed to do a lot. Teachers and students alike plunged into multimedia writing, producing films and videos, extensive audio essays (which are currently aired every week on Stanford’s campus radio station), and web texts of all kinds. But our students helped to rein us in. In their evaluations and in the extensive focus group discussions we held with students following their experience in PWR 2, they told us in no uncertain terms that while they loved the opportunity to explore new media in writing and to push their writing in new directions, they weren’t sure their writing was actually improving. (In other words, they knew they were learning something, but many of them wouldn’t call it writing.) So caught up were they in the fine points of Audacity, a software program for editing audio essays, or the pleasures of iMovies or the production of a Zine that the actual writing (or at least what students understood as writing) in these endeavors seemed to suffer. Moreover, they noted with irritation that the class workload differed dramatically across sections and, especially, that some classes provided for very thorough instruction in presentation and for lots of “drafts” of oral/multimedia presentations, while others did not. In short, they echoed our own concerns. Mid-year reflection told us we did not have this course really “down” yet, so we went back to the drawing board. In particular, our Curriculum Committee worked to address three major concerns: • How to balance academic with practical, real-world writing assignments; • How to balance critique and analysis of multimedia rhetoric (skills most of us generally felt confident teaching) with practice in developing multimedia texts (here we felt less confident); • How to balance technical training (ranging from PowerPoint to video production) with instruction in writing, rhetoric, and presentation. We heard early on from upper administrators about their “horrible suspicion” that we might “just be teaching PowerPoint” on the one hand, and from our Undergraduate Advisory Board about their near-violent disagreements over what constituted an effective PowerPoint presentation, much less on how to teach one. So we’ve been particularly interested to compare reactions to this newly required second course to what we hear about PWR 1, the more “traditional” first-year course. While some students complain that our focus on research-based argument is too limiting, and that they want a chance to write more creatively or expressively, we don’t hear complaints about how we define research-based argument in the context of a research university. It’s in the context of PWR 2 that everyone—and no one—is an expert, and we feel as though we are hearing from every one of these folks.

With these points in mind, a group of us began to reconsider our course goals, to try to focus more on the role of writing and presentation in the course. We realized, for example, that just as we did not expect students in PWR 1 to conduct research at the level of graduate students, so we should not expect students in PWR 2 to create full-length films, videos, hypertexts, or other digital work at the level of students with specialized training in those areas. (Indeed, we were reminded politely, Stanford’s new major in Film and Media Studies would be grappling with that advanced task.) Instead, we posited that PWR 2 should orient students to media production as a means of persuasion in the way that PWR 1 does this task for research at the university level. What we had to remind ourselves (over and over again) was that the core values of PWR 2 entail rhetoric, research, argument, and presentation rather than advanced training in media production. The result of this rethinking and refocusing was fairly dramatic: almost to a person, we felt that our PWR 2 courses in the spring were far more coherent and rigorous than the ones we had taught in the winter because they placed the delivery of a research-based argument at the center of the curriculum. And while we do not yet have student evaluations for these classes, we are hopeful that students will have noted the differences as well. When we began our work on PWR 2, we thought that redefining writing (as highly mediated) and developing a new vocabulary for communicative literacies would yield to careful observation: just look around, we thought, and take note of what writing looks like today and how it functions—then new definitions and terms will be apparent enough. Our current version of the latest “new” rhetoric would be born. How naïve could we be! Redefining terms or creating a “new rhetoric and writing” is one thing: realizing and fully implementing any such redefinitions is quite another. Indeed, we have learned that teaching writing based on a substantive redefinition of writing affects every single aspect of our work: our theories of writing and rhetoric, our curriculum, our classroom configurations, our staffing, training, evaluation principles and procedures, our relationships with other programs (and with upper administration), and our methods and materials. We know, for instance, that traditional and familiar theories of writing have not focused on the material conditions of production or accounted for the inclusion of aural and visual elements (what we have nicknamed the “three v’s”: vocal, visual, verbal) at every stage of the writing process, much less on effective ways to perform the knowledge produced during those stages. And while the field of rhetoric and writing has led the way in how best to assess traditional forms of academic writing, we are now engaged in the complex work of assessing forms of digital, multimedia, and performed writing. We have even had to re-think our methods, from how we use collaboration in the classroom to how we teach research, to how we respond to students and their writing (or spriting).

We of course are not the only ones struggling with this set of complex issues. In a blog entry on “screencasting as the new FYC,” C. G. Brooke takes up Jon Udell’s question: “Would I really suggest that techies will become fluid storytellers not only in the medium of the written essay, but also in the medium of the narrated screencast?” and then turns that quotation around to say “Would I really suggest that first-year composition take up the challenge of meeting those techies halfway, as well as the challenge of questioning our assumptions about the scope of writing?” to which he answers “Hell yes.” This is the challenge my colleague Eric Miraglia raised for us this year: how to fulfill our Faculty Senate’s mandate to “teach effective writing and speaking” while allowing students an opportunity for “authoring in the most compelling discursive modalities of their generation.” There is no doubt in my mind that these “compelling discursive modalities”—webtexts, films, radio essays, multimedia presentations—are here to stay and that they, in fact, constitute the heart of what students of a new rhetoric need to learn and practice. But moving in this direction will not be easy.

First, we need to remember the power of the old rhetoric, and indeed to understand that the new modalities our students are practicing are in some ways echoes of the scene of writing and speaking in 5th century BCE Greece, when the oral performance of discourse took precedence. But we also need to remember the power and history of print textuality: the era of the book may be closing, but the power of print remains. The challenge for those professing writing and rhetoric today lies in facing such tensions and finding ways to honor while attempting to move beyond them. Doing so seems to me much more important than deciding on whether writing and rhetoric should be housed in a new and separate department or even arguing over whether there is or is not a “new” rhetoric. Perhaps the wisest course of action is to recognize that where there is language there will always be rhetoric, and that rhetoric will inevitably renew itself with each succeeding generation.

*ANDREA A. LUNSFORD


Notes
1. In making this claim about the linking of rhetoric to composition as a feature of a “new” rhetoric, I could go on to trace the focus on student writing (the process movement in composition and rhetoric) to a growing realization of how vastly writers differ (the late social constructionist and post process movements) and inevitably to the importance of difference of all kinds to writing and the teaching of writing. That trajectory leads to another radical revisioning of rhetoric—as potentially inclusive and non-hierarchical, for example) and has been the subject of a number of efforts by feminist and postcolonial scholars.

Works Cited
Brooke, C. G. “Screencasting as the new FYC?” 28 April 2005 <http://wrtbrooke. syr.edu/cgbvb/archives/2005/04/screencasting_a.html>. Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford UP, 2nd ed., 1971. Diogenes, Marvin and Andrea Lunsford. “Toward Delivering New Definitions of Writing.” Forthcoming in Yancey ed. Perelman, Chaim and Lucie Olbrechts Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: a Treatise on Argumentation. University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. “Read/Write Writing.” Posting by Will R. to the Read/Write WEblogg on 28 April 2005. <http://www.weblogg-ed.com/2005/04/28>. Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. Shankar, Tara Michelle Rosenberger. “Speaking on the Record.” Unpublished Dissertation. MIT, 2005.


What is the New Rhetoric?

Edited by Susan E. Thomas

CAMBRIDGE SCHOLARS PUBLISHING

 

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