Paper #1: A Weasel, A Whale, and A Watershed Conference: The History of Rhetoric & Composition

Although initially separate in both their historical and pedagogical nature, rhetoric and composition found a commingling in the twentieth century, leading to the creation of a sub-discipline within English Studies that has gained strength especially over the past fifty years within the university setting.

FDR signing GI Bill - 1944

The GI Bill encouraged veterans to go to college, which in turn, led to English Studies’ focus on writing. Source: FDR Library

Whereas, over the centuries, literary studies predominated the greater part of English studies, leading to countless positions on critiquing literature, from the works of Horace to Harold Bloom, the post-World War II generation saw an emergence of American scholars “disillusioned by humanistic values ability to save the world,” who sought to educate the middle class, especially as the GI Bill offered to pay veteran men and women to attend colleges and universities (McComiskey 24).  These scholars, according to Connors in his Writing The History of Our Discipline, realized that this new class of degree-seeking individuals brought new ideas and expectations to the English classroom, resulting in professors embracing the once departmentally marginalized composition studies and unwavering in their determination to “study composition, analyze it, and try to do it as best it could be done” (qtd. in McComiskey 25).

Lauer’s narrative regarding the particulars of combining rhetoric with composition studies indicates that interest in returning rhetoric’s connection to writing in the 1960s came out of the founding of the interdisciplinary Rhetoric Society of America and the organization’s discussion about rhetoric’s connection to composition among some of its members, such as Edward Corbett, Ross Winterowd, Richard Young, Janice Lauer, and Richard Larson (McComiskey 109). Additionally, she highlights Robert Gorrell’s meeting with like-minded educators at the 1964 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) to discuss the “new interest in rhetoric and its linkage with composition” (McComiskey 108).

Bob Gorrell, Author of

University of Nevada Professor Bob Gorrell described rhetoric as both a weasel and a whale in his 1965 article. Source: University of Nevada Libraries

To demonstrate the determination of the CCCC’s group on this subject, a look at Gorrell’s account of the conference meeting, found in his 1965 article “Very Like a Whale—A Report on Rhetoric,” describes rhetoric as a “weasel” since the group meeting at the CCCC found it difficult to nail down a firm definition—it is, after all, at once both a “theory of communication” and a “body of precepts and advise” (140)—but he concludes that although full of blubber, rhetoric is solid, “very like a whale,” and  “deserves more emphasis in the training of teachers . . . [and] that graduate students should have work in rhetorical theory as well as practice in writing” (143).  Lauer expands on this “watershed event” regarding rhetoric and composition’s new found marriage, commenting on the involved scholar’s goals to reconnect rhetoric’s ancient roots to composition studies. That is, she writes, they aimed to teach students to apply ethos, pathos, topics, and status within discovering rhetorical situations; employ “informal enthymemes and examples” in lieu of syllogisms; and understand kairos (McComiskey 108).

Seemingly, after the growing initiative in the 1960s to infuse rhetoric into composition studies, scholarship burgeoned in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, giving rise to rhetoric and composition as a formal discipline within the university, including degree programs at University of Michigan and courses at Ohio State, followed by doctoral programs in the late 1970s at the University of South California, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Louisville (McComiskey 110). Nystrand and colleagues detail this rise of the discipline, discussing the field’s co-opting of cognitivism and constructivism in the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  The works of Moffett, Britton, Emig, Flower, HayesFish, and Chomsky proved hallmarks for the constructivist view, which situates writing and reading as “dynamic processes of constructing meaning”; orders language and “gives shape and thus meaning to experience”; and validates “the role of mind in shaping human experience” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

Then, in the 1980s, social constructionism influenced rhetoric and composition through the work of linguists William Labov, Dell Hymes, and John Searle.  Following suit, composition research from the likes of Shaughnessy, Bruffee, Bizzell, and Bartholomae enlightened this social constructionist epistemology within rhetoric and composition, and terms and ideas, such as writing as social act, writing across the curriculum, and discourse communities, became popular (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

In the 1990s, theory in rhetoric and composition shifted from structuralism to post-structuralism. Dialogism, rooted in the work of Bakhtin, gained strong footing with scholars in the field, focusing on how “meaning of any utterance is always relative to other utterances” in a dialog of sorts (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 296).

Bakhtin's dialogism

Bakhtin’s dialogism influenced post-structuralism in rhetoric and composition. Source: Amazon

Important theorists, such as Barthes, Brodkey, Derrida, and Foucault  “come out of this wave of thought and argue that knowledge and meaning are socially constructed, context dependent, political and historical—and therefore unstable, partial and multiple” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 300).

The post-structuralist movement, running parallel with postmodernism, also produced the theory of post-process within rhetoric and composition.   About this theory, Breuch writes that the “dominant contention of post-process scholars is that process has come to represent Theory with a capital ‘T'” (119), and, therefore, in a good postmodernist view, which denies absolutes, process in writing, then, becomes a meta-narrative of sorts.

To reflect on this theory, post-process does seems rather unmanageable, especially in relation to first-year composition in a community college setting.  Honestly, as I have examined the various schools of thought that make up the history of rhetoric and composition as an academic discipline, I cannot help but to (sadly) think that I am, in the classroom, often caught in that current-traditional model, that prescriptive mode of the five-paragraph theme, where pulling together paragraphs and catching catachresis can end up being the lesson or assessment of the day. Strangely, I am not necessarily a current traditionalist by choice, but it seems to be where the students need me to be.

Certainly, I teach that writing is messy, non-linear, and often un-formulaic, but by the same token, I often teach first-year college students the basic process of exploring the topic, pre-writing, drafting, and revising and editing.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition. Source: Author’s

In fact, I just finished developing a Quality Matters course for first-year composition (that many faculty will be required to use), and that process is exactly how each unit is set up. Does this make me an educator that’s out of touch with the current trends in the field?  I mean; that’s not honestly how I approach writing myself, and my personal worldview has a postmodern lilt to it. So, who exactly is the audience for this post-process, post-structural, postmodern way of teaching? Is it for the bourgeois intellectuals who are post-everything? Or could it be that, ironically, even good rhetoricians do not always know their audience, or at least they do not fully state it?

All that said, I continue to ponder my pedagogy and theories of approaching rhetoric and composition, and, like Gorrell’s weasel, it sometimes eludes me. Likewise, like his whale, I find the discipline’s epistemology often solid but sometimes full of blubber.  Now, if I could just fit a wallaby in there somewhere to keep with the alliterative animal metaphors.

Works Cited

Breuch, Lee-Ann M Kastman. Post Process ‘ Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” jac 22.1 (2002): 119-150. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Gorell, Robert. “Very Like A Whale–A Report on Rhetoric.” College Communication and Composition 16.3 (1965): 138-43.   Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

McComiskey, Bruce. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of     English, 2006. Print.

Nystrand, Martin, Stuart Greene, and Jeffrey Wiemelt. “Where Did Composition Studies Come From? An Intellectual   History.”Written Communication 10.3 (1993): 267-333. ERIC. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

8 thoughts on “Paper #1: A Weasel, A Whale, and A Watershed Conference: The History of Rhetoric & Composition

  1. I think you make a great point that frequently despite what type of teacher or way we want to fit into our discipline, we frequently respond to the needs of our students. I do the same thing – I certainly see parts of myself as a social constructionist, but I must also respond to what the deficiencies of the students are first and foremost.

    It is interesting, also, to consider how this branched off from the field I wrote about, which is ESL/developmental composition. This field overlaps more with the field of second-language teaching and also models of cognitive development. Despite the fields we researched being almost the same, we came out with quite different histories. I think this speaks to how our field is getting more fractured and specialized while still being called the same thing. I wonder, then, are we getting too specialized, or in some cases should there be call for separate departments to house these fields?

    • Amy, I don’t know why my initial comments from some time ago did not show up, but I did reply to you as such:

      Amy, thanks for the response here. In our research, I have thought deeply about the fractured nature of the rhetoric and composition field, and your comment about ESL/Developmental Composition branching off from the cognitivist view is rather interesting. It is quite like the literary canon. When does one stop adding? How much further does one expand it? You can’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink, or it ceases to be what it is. Likewise, how far do we take rhetoric and composition–and that’s why the Octalog III article is so interesting–before it ceases to be what it is? I don’t feel expert enough to fully comment there, but both inclusion and identity are important in education (and life). I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but I do think striking a balance between accepting everyone and keeping some sort of structured identity is difficult.

  2. Your conclusion made me laugh, and I appreciate your thoughts about the process movement, as it has provoked some reflection on my part about how I approach and label what I do in my classrooms. I was going through my masters in writing when the post-process movement was gaining steam, and though I have always had a strong post-process bent (I have never cared for requiring outlines or other more structured, traditional writing process artifacts), I do see where it is helpful to let students know up front in my classes that they will be taking part in some sort of recursive writing process involving writing, feedback, rewriting, and more of the same just to plant that focus front and center. When I (re)took an intro to the field course two years ago, I was delighted to be exposed to the post-process movement and to have a name for my unsystematic approach to process, largely because other instructors with whom I worked sometimes expressed negative views of my approach (“too unstructured” was the main critique). How post-process does one have to be to really identify as “post-process,” though? Hmmm…

    • I am with you on outlines, Casey. You do raise a good question about how post-process one has to be to fall under that category. Then again, why do we have to label and categorize. I’m not advocating anti-intellectual behavior here or un-reflective work around our pedagogy, but as I state in my post, you sometimes let the pedagogy pick you, based on the needs of the situation. Perhaps this is Freirean or kairic (see there we go with labeling again).

  3. I enjoyed reading your paper. I’m at a community college too. My department emphasizes process with a healthy dose of metacognition, so I’m trying to figure out if that aligns with post-process. Could you clarify something for me? Post-process isn’t without process, right? It is after the process movement and beyond the process movement, but it still utilizes process, just not in a lock-step fashion, yes/no? I guess I am thinking of a chapter I read on assessing multimodal assignments at by Crystal Van Kooten, where she wrote about assessing either the product, the process, or both. That chapter helped me see beyond a “follow this process, end up with this product” pedagogy because I could see where students were learning a great deal through their multimodal assignments even when the product was not fully realized as they intended.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Thomas Kent is probably the most well known author on the subject of post-process. He says the best we can do is “hermeneutic guesswork” when it comes to writing. That said, I probably oversimplified post-process in my post, but let’s walk into your basic writing class or my first-year composition class and tell students that writing is hermeneutic guesswork. That will be an exciting conversation (he said with full sarcasm). When you have students who actually vomit when they have to write an essay because it stresses them out so much, I think they need some better consolation, some greater substance. Berlin says–and I am paraphrasing here–that all teachers of writing use some process; they just don’t agree on which one. Now, I can fully go with that, but my main point in my railing, as it may be perceived, of post-process was mainly rhetorical in nature. That is, teachers of writing should be in the moment and with the needs of their students–kairos if you will–and most first-year students need process. They do not need to hear about the “rhetoric of assertion” (see Olson); they need something to glom onto.

      By the way, this is a little off topic, but related: as writing center director, I get inquiries from my staff when they get students–in first-year composition even–who say their instructors never taught them the invention of a thesis (because, of course, if you don’t have a thesis, you are doomed to repeat Comp 1 until you get it right ;)). Being friendly with most of the full-time faculty, and knowing how they teach, I can usually pinpoint to whom they refer. I tell them that some instructors are more about the thinking and not the process. This type of dialog sometimes boggles my staff’s minds and makes them question other’s pedagogy (my staff is all professional, not peer, and most teach writing as well, by the way), but it shows the point about how hard it is to separate ourselves from process. It is ingrained in many of us, whether we know it or not. This, I believe, is, what most good post-modernists, such as Kent and Olson, want us to at least be aware of. The funny/odd thing, to me anyway, is that much of post-modernity seems like an awareness campaign. It is not necessarily outwardly full of solutions but inwardly we should realize, understand, and act (kind of intelligentsia-like if you think about). Again, that’s probably a simplification, but it is early on Saturday morning, so the deeper thoughts might come later (or not). All that said, thanks again, Prof. Hancock, for stopping by.

  4. Pingback: Paper #2: Unraveling Process and Transfer in Composition Studies | Matthew Bodie

  5. Pingback: Paper #3 Objects of Study (OoS) in Composition Pedagogy ENGL 810 | Cassie's odu blog

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