Is Composition Not Rhetoric?

Today I want to examine a critique made by Sharon Crowley in the Fall 2003 Enculturation. Her title is “Composition Is Not Rhetoric.” Her argument is essentially that while a brief interest in rhetoric flourished during the period of classical-rhetoric revival in the 60s and 70s, it came and went without having much effect on classroom practices, which held to a current-traditional framework. The actual historical connection between writing instruction and rhetorical education, Crowley asserts, was severed by the same late-nineteenth century Arnoldian humanists who instituted the first-year composition requirement. Textbooks and academic studies by authors like P. J. Corbett continue to be read by graduate students entering the profession, but have neither become popular texts in these classes or had much effect on their practices. The invocation of rhetoric has improved the academic prestige of composition and those who teach it by connecting the field to a long-established discourse and opening new avenues of research, historical inquiry among them, but while professionals in the field enjoy an improved position within the university, the practices of composition classrooms have little to do with rhetoric.

While composition justifies its assertion of an association with rhetoric by reference to the inclusion of written composition as a subject among the texts of classical rhetoric, composition as it is actually taught is not rhetorical, because it does not draw on rhetoric’s emphasis on invention, which Crowley defines as “the systematic discovery and investigation of the available arguments in a given situation.” Nor does composition at present “conceive of the arguments generated by rhetorical invention as both produced and circulated within a network of social and civic discourse, images, and events.” Lastly, composition is not rhetoric because of its failure to intervene in the social discourse of its context: “any practice entitled to be called “rhetoric” must intervene in some way in social and civic discursive networks.” Crowley does acknowledge that some practices under the banner of composition aim at social intervention, but notes that the approaches in composition studies that do so draw on Marxist theory and cultural studies rather than rhetoric (and here it seems reasonable to ask whether these other theoretical approaches might not be capable of rhetorical practices).

Having defined rhetoric as a heuristic process that emphasizes participation in civic discourse, Crowley describes composition classrooms as being based on expressivist assignments in which students are asked to write from their experience and then presumably evaluated according to current-traditional criteria of arrangement and style (I’ll note in passing that these features are themselves elements of the traditional rhetorical canon, if only the leftovers once invention is removed from the criteria). Crowley associates this expressivist tendency with process pedagogy, and sees it as an abdication of the traditional emphasis within rhetoric on engagement with civic discourse. Additionally, Crowley sees this process-oriented expressivist composition pedagogy as bereft of the rhetorical category of invention. Thus, because it features neither invention nor civic engagement, composition pedagogy as it exists today, or at least in 2004, is not, on Sharon Crowley’s terms, rhetoric.

I think it’s excellent that such a critique should come from within the field. The link between composition and rhetoric, whatever it may be, seems to have the status of an important on-going problem related to the field’s emerging identity, not in the sense that such a problem will be definitively resolved and the field’s identity established for good, but in the sense that this problem, no doubt in several permutations, has been a defining problem for the field for decades, ever since the question of rhetoric was reintroduced, and different answers to this problem have produced a variety of identities and movements within the field, often operating simultaneously. Sometimes, as Crowley’s critique indicates, different simultaneously extant responses to this problem may be mutually exclusive, such that one particular identity established in response to this question may be founded on the denial of the validity of other responses. In this case, Crowley relies on a definition of rhetoric drawn from Charles Sears Baldwin to counter the narrative of rhetoric’s retreat and return.

Baldwin draws a distinction between rhetoric, associated with invention and truth, and sophistry, associated with superficial stylistics:

“what has intervened to deviate rhetoric and frustrate its best use has again and again been the preoccupation with giving effectiveness not to the message, but to the speaker.” (quoted in Crowley)

Crowley speculates that Balwin’s critique of sophistry, concerned not with advancing good arguments but with making the speaker persuasive, might have been an indirect critique of the expressivist turn in composition pedagogy that was prevalent in his time (Crowley suggests that expressivist pedagogies continue to exert influence; this hasn’t been my experience, but my institution may be an exception, or, more likely, the discrepancy could be the result of a shift in institutional trends since Crowley’s article).

But while composition pedagogy may fall short of being rhetorical, Crowley does add that “As far as I can see, there is no necessary reason that rhetoric could not be taught in this course,” leaving open the possibility of a future rhetoric-composition that does emphasize invention and intervention in discourse. This rhetorical-composition-to-come is the challenge Crowley’s article makes, and the promise it simultaneously offers.

Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality

While I’m sure I’ll circle back around to Pedagogy of the Oppressed,  whose last chapter in particular strikes me as especially relevant for rhetorical studies, in the time between my last post I re-read James A. Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985 (Freire actually gets mentioned a number of times in the course of Berlin’s book, a testament to his enduring influence on scholars and teachers of composition and rhetoric). Berlin’s book is invaluable for his situation of various movements of twentieth century composition pedagogy and scholarship into a historical narrative. Berlin categorizes the various “rhetorics,” for part of his argument is that writing instruction in the last century was characterized by a multiplicity of rhetorics, according to their epistemologies, or at least epistemological assumptions.

He identifies three epistemological currents in twentieth-century American writing instruction, each with it’s own sub-variants and associated rhetorics. They are objective epsitemologies, which locates reality in the material world, and which is associated with “current-traditionalist” rhetoric, a rhetoric that assumes that the writer’s job is to communicate the perceivable truths of the material world and focuses its instruction on the stylistic correction of student writing–the defining feature of this epistemology where rhetoric is concerned is that it assumes language to be a neutral vessel that simply transfers information; subjective epistemologies, which locates truth in the mind of the individual and which is associated with expressivist rhetorics, including those drawing on cognitive psychology, that focus on trying to elicit personal truths from writing students, often through writing assignments that ask the students to consider their own lives, backgrounds and environments, as well as through exercises like journal keeping and automatic writing; and transactional epistemologies, which see reality as a product of discourse, and whose associated rhetorics include classical rhetoric, which understands rhetoric to be the province of all things not verifiable according to logical or scientific criteria of truth, including, for example, questions of ethics and politics, and the more skeptical epistemic rhetorics, such as those drawing on the work of post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, as well as Nietzsche, the granddaddy of this epistemological family tree, who understand knowledge itself to be rhetorical because of the ways that language and discourse establish the categories for what can be perceived or accepted as evidence or truth (a simple example of this would be the ways that different academic fields establish their own domains of knowledge characterized by specialized vocabularies and criteria of what counts as admissible truth).

Berlin favors rhetorics deriving from transactional epistemologies, and does so explicitly, but his presentations of other rhetorics are not uncharitable. He is careful to point out, for example, that the subjective liberal rhetoric of belles-lettres preserved an almost mystical approach to literature in the face of an encroaching mania for approaching every subject according to ostensibly scientific methods in the first part of the century. In spite of his care to present various rhetorics generously and in their own terms, his categorization of them, their major figures, and their epistemologies is where Berlin is most open to critique, which is hardly surprising given the scope of his work. I find myself resistant to his characterizations of ostensibly subjectivist composition scholars like Donald Murray and Peter Elbow, although I might find myself in accord with Berlin’s overview when I’m more thoroughly versed in their work.

This small objection aside–and, really, these spots of resistance are a valuable gift to someone doing research because they open lines of inquiry into other texts–Berlin’s book serves admirably as a kind of road-map of twentieth century composition and rhetoric in the United States, or, more accurately, as a particular travel writer’s admittedly subjective take on a territory he knows and loves, and loves some areas of more than others. It’s a book I feel I should be reading in a continuous loop, along with the many, many books and articles it points to, as I travel the many roads of rhetoric leading toward my comprehensive exams.

“Banking” vs. Problem-Posing Education

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire (Photo credit: chhhh)

Like Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” which I wrote about in a previous post, the second chapter of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is reproduced and widely circulated in the textbook Ways of Reading, under the title “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” I’ve taught it several times myself, and I doubt that I’ve done a great job of embodying the essay’s lesson. That’s because teaching as we usually understand it, which consists of the teacher presenting information that the students are expected to commit to memory and reproduce when prompted, is exactly what Freire is calling into question here. It’s not very easy to break from deeply engrained habits and attitudes that shaped most of our own educations, but in this second chapter Freire outlines an alternative approach, one that will help students become critical participants in our shared reality, rather than merely frustrated spectators.

First, what’s wrong with education as we’ve normally experienced it? Freire begins this chapter by writing that education suffers from “narration sickness” (71); that is, in the usual way of doing education, the teacher presents a narrative about the world that the students are expected to internalize and reproduce when asked to do so. Freire identifies a number of problems with this system: the information presented to the students is separated from their existential experience, and therefore dull and lifeless; the students are trained to take a passive role in relationship to the world; the world is treated as a static reality separate from the student, and the student is treated as an individual separate from the world, rather than a participant in the on-going creation of reality. These are the reasons Freire says this style of education is dehumanizing: it separates students from a critical participation in the world, and in fact discourages it, substituting a false image of the world for the true knowledge that comes from the pairing of action and critical inquiry, which Freire also calls praxis.

Freire labels this dehumanizing style of education the “banking” concept of education, because it treats students as empty receptacles into which the “banker” teachers deposit information. What makes it dehumanizing is that the students are excluded from actively participating in their own becoming by the dichotomy between teacher and student that is central to banking education: the teacher is an absolute authority, and the role of the students is to receive the narrative the teacher presents uncritically. Students are presumed to know nothing, while the teacher is presumed to know everything. Drawing on terms from Freire’s previous chapter, we can observe that in this case the students are the victims of a false charity that perpetuates a structure of oppression while presuming to do it for the students’ benefit: the teacher gives the gift of knowledge, understood as the teacher’s property, to the students in an act of educational welfare. The students have no role in contributing to or challenging the narrative they’re presented with, or in establishing the objectives or values of the class. It is always an authority who sets the agenda, and always the students’ duty to adjust themselves to the agenda the authority has set. Because the students are presumed to be fundamentally ignorant, and because knowledge is the property of the teacher, information presented in banking education is necessarily abstract, with no relation to the students’ own experiences of the world. Because the knowledge presented in the classroom is divorced from the students’ own observations, the students’ perspectives and experiences outside the classroom are understood to be educationally worthless. What matters is that the student memorizes facts; the application of knowledge to reality has no role in banking education. That is to say, banking education treats the students as non-historical: “banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings” (84), which is simply to say that banking education denies the students a role in determining the shape of the world, whether the world of the classroom, politics, or the workplace. The authoritarian quality of banking education trains the students to be submissive members of society even outside the classroom.

In contrast to banking education, Freire proposes “problem-posing” education. Problem-posing education departs from banking education by resolving the teacher/student dichotomy. Whereas banking education is founded upon the inflexibility of these roles, problem-posing involves a collective critical inquiry in which the participants are teacher-students and student-teachers. Freire outlines the contrast thus:

Banking education (for obvious reasons) attempts, by mythicizing reality, to conceal certain facts which explain the way human beings exist in the world; problem-posing education sets itself the task of demythologizing. Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. (83-4)

In problem-posing education, teacher-students and student-teachers mutually participate in praxis, in “true reflection and action upon reality.” Freire develops the specifics of how such a program might work in more detail, here and in the following chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but I don’t intend to get into the details here (although I certainly encourage you to read Freire, especially if you teach or aspire to).

What strikes me as most important for teachers of composition and other subjects, as well as their students, is to recognize the problems that Freire has identified in his description of banking education, and to work on developing and instituting alternative education practices within our own institutions and cultural contexts. Part of this process means recognizing the extent to which we’ve been conditioned by the banking process in our previous experiences of education, and, frankly, habituated to the authoritarian values it promotes. I believe that recognizing and dismantling this training is bound to be a long process, given that virtually all of us spent our most impressionable years in institutions of education dedicated to and shaped by the banking method and its assumptions. (And here I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the very few places in public education where, in my experience at least, the banking method was not applied–mainly humanities classes in which students were encouraged to think critically and develop their own perspectives about the stories they were presented with, something that runs fundamentally counter to banking education and its insistence on uncritical acceptance of given narratives). Such reflection and action seems extremely important now, with the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in the United States, and the corresponding bowdlerization of the humanities, which, let me say again, are one of the few pockets of resistance to the banking method, another being art classes.

While the institutions of primary and secondary education are already afflicted with a mania for standardized testing, the emergence of the massive open online course, or MOOC, threatens to make banking education an entrenched feature of higher education as well. The risk is especially grave to humanities classes, especially such widely-required, widely-staffed courses as English 101 and 102, which administrators will be increasingly tempted to replace with cheaper online classes that will require fewer staff and faculty to facilitate. Whereas the composition classroom has the potential to be a forum for the open exchange of ideas and the kind of problem-posing education that Freire advocates, the MOOC is by it’s very structure an exercise in pure banking education: in the MOOC, the transfer of knowledge is entirely one way; the student receives the instruction from a distance via the medium of technology. In this case, the banking concept’s distance between teacher and student is actually enacted physically, as the teacher becomes a kind of distant authority, less a human being to the student than something akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. Direct critical collaboration with either the instructor or classmates is not possible, and the student is alienated not only from the course’s ostensible subject matter, but from all potential partners in the dialogue that Freire observes is “indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality” (83).

Because of these immediate and increasing threats to anything resembling critical pedagogy in the United States, Freire’s book seems more important than ever, and less like an abstract exercise in theory, which it was never meant to be, than a call to action and reflection on ourselves, our students, and the situation we mutually find ourselves in.

Composition in the Contact Zone

 Mad Max

In my previous post on Ellen Cushman’s “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” I wrote about that author’s call for rhetoric and composition scholars to engage their communities in reciprocal “civic participation,” rather than relying exclusively on critical pedagogy to effect social change. The next author whose work I want to focus on, Mary Louise Pratt, asks us to rethink our assumptions about the communities we inhabit, both inside the academy and out in what in happier times was sometimes called “the real world,” when it was easier to pretend that professional teachers and scholars were secure in their positions and immune to the Mad Max ethos of corporate capitalism, and before globalization had transformed the entire world into a giant Thunderdome.

Unlike Cushman, Pratt emphasizes classroom practices, at least in the address/essay I want to cover here, “Arts of the Contact Zone.” That widely circulated essay is included in the influential freshman composition anthology, Ways of Reading, which I have great affection for and great reservations about, and the page numbers I’ll be giving are drawn from the eighth edition. While “Arts of the Contact Zone” prioritizes questions about classroom practice, the essay also makes it clear that Pratt is very concerned with the other communities we inhabit, and how we can navigate them once we acknowledge that they are not the homogenous, monocultural spaces we might have assumed them to be. Pratt signals this concern when she introduces the subject of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s The First New Chronicle and Good Government with an ironic aside:

I was asked to speak as an MLA member working in the elite academy. In that capacity my contribution is undoubtedly supposed to be abstract, irrelevant, and anchored outside the real world. I wouldn’t dream of disappointing anyone. (500)

The story of The First New Chronicle and Good Government is a heartbreaking one, and I strongly encourage you to read Pratt and her sources for the details. Suffice it say for now that texts written in modes other than the recognized forms of discourse endorsed by cultural authorities are apt to be ignored, misunderstood, neglected, discarded, or tucked into a museum and forgotten for three-hundred years, as happened with Guaman Poma’s sprawling letter to King Philip III, which presented a native Andean perspective on the Andeans and their history and also documented the abuses of the Andeans at the hands of Spanish colonizers. The Spanish Monarch would never receive the twelve-hundred page letter addressed to him. As Pratt writes,

It was not till the late 1970s, as positivist reading habits gave way to interpretive studies and colonial elitisms to post-colonial pluralisms, that Western scholars found ways of reading Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle and Good Government as the extraordinary intercultural tour de force that it was. The letter got there, only 350 years too late, a miracle and a terrible tragedy. (500)

Pratt uses Guaman Poma’s text to introduce a pair of concepts useful for thinking differently about our own classrooms and communities: contact zones and the authoethnographic text. She defines contact zones as:

social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today. (501)

Seventeenth-century Peru, occupied by Spanish conquerors, is one of the contact zones Platt describes, and Guaman Poma’s letter intended for King Philip III, making use of both Andean and Spanish modes of communication, serves as an example of an autoethnographic text, which Platt defines as:

a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them. Thus if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), authoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts. (501-2)

Español: Guaman Poma - Nueva_crónica

Español: Guaman Poma – Nueva_crónica “Españoles soberbioso criollo o mestizo o mulato deste rreyno” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since such texts exist in dialogue with the texts of a dominant culture, they adapt and sometimes subvert the modes of discourse of the prevailing culture they’re responding to. I’d suggest that the academic essay genre we ask our students to conform to is one of the officially sanctioned modes of discourse authorized by the dominant culture (and like all such official discourses, open to the possibility of subversion and adaptation to the needs of minority groups marginalized by the dominant culture).

Pratt’s notion of “contact zones” counters descriptions of culture as unified, homogenous, and monolithic. Such conceptions of culture invariably marginalize, or simply ignore, the perspectives and experiences of both external cultures who might be subject to that culture’s aggression or interference, as in the case of Native Americans exploited and exterminated by European conquerors, and minority groups within that culture whose own narratives and self-conceptions do not fit the dominant cultural narrative.

Understanding our communities as contact zones rather than monolithic cultures has a profound effect on our interpretation of them and the kinds of narratives that seem appropriate to tell about them. Although he never uses the phrase to my knowlege, I believe that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which you should purchase and read immediately, is a good example of how our perspective changes when we understand our culture and its history as a contact zone wherein groups of different cultures, classes, and varying degrees of legal standing co-exist in widely unequal relations of power. In that book’s first chapter, he writes:

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as “the United States,” subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

When history is understood as a universal narrative, that narrative invariably presents the perspective of those in power, the perspective of the conquerors, rather than that of the conquered, and perspectives that do not align with the dominant narrative are made to disappear. Likewise, when we presume a common culture in our composition classes, we do violence to the actual diversity of perspectives and narratives that may make up the class (and I fully acknowledge that some classes are more diverse than others).

Being willing to understand our classrooms and communities as contact zones means being willing to let go of some of our old, comforting certainties, among them the certainty that the teacher, as representative of the dominant culture and its perspectives, has the authority to speak for all as a kind of objective, universal spokesperson. (This is the perspective that Ellen Cushman warns us against in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” and the reason she insists that scholars’ civic participation in their communities be reciprocal and that their research be in communication with community members and not merely about them). When Pratt describes her experience in a classroom understood as a contact zone, she emphasizes the challenges of beginning to relinquish this position of universal authority:

It was the most exciting teaching we had ever done, and also the hardest. We were struck, for example, at how anomalous the formal lecture became in a contact zone (who can forget Atahuallpa throwing down the Bible because it would not speak to hm?). The lecturer’s traditional (imagined) task–unifying the world in the class’s eyes by means of a monologue that rings equally coherent, revealing, and true for all, forging an ad hoc community, homogeneous with respect to one’s own words–this task became not only impossible but anomalous and unimaginable. Instead, one had to work in the knowledge that whatever one said was going to be systematically received in radically heterogeneous ways that we were neither able nor entitled to prescribe. (510)

Re-imagining the classroom as a contact zone means re-imagining our roles as teachers and writing instructors, as well as the purpose and kinds of writing we ask our students to perform: whose voice and perspective do we ask them to take, and whose interests does it serve?