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.

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?

Ellen Cushman: Liberatory Pedagogies and Civil Participation

English: Photo of Paulo Freire

English: Photo of Paulo Freire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll now begin a series on texts dealing with questions of social activism in the practices of rhetoric and composition scholars, starting with Ellen Cushman’s essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” (College Composition And Communication 47.1 [1996]: 7-28). As my previous post on Elbow indicated, these issues are never far away when we’re talking about writing and writing instruction, so we might as well get down to it, right?

Cushman’s essay is a good place to start because she raises some questions about the relationship between academic work and social activism that will be good to keep in mind when when we turn to the work of Paulo Freire, Mike Rose, bell hooks, and other scholars relevant to the field. In fact, I hope Cushman’s essay will serve as an antidote to some of the problematic assumptions that can follow from well-intentioned approaches to pedagogy and social action. If your orientation is anything like mine, you’ll need such an antidote, because the approach to critical pedagogy we’re comfortable with, i.e. teaching to raise consciousness in the classroom, isn’t adequate to her goals, and in fact leads easily into a lot of problems that can have the reverse effects of what we intend: specifically, reinforcing the hierarchies and institutional roles that treat teachers as all-knowing, active subjects and students as passive receptacles of the knowledge offered by teachers, in other words, the “banking” concept of education described by Paulo Freire, whose work informs Cushman’s and whose image, unlike hers, was easily obtained by a cursory online search.

Instead of a particular pedagogical program, Cushman advocates greater involvement with the community surrounding the university, and while I think she also means this on a more general, figurative level, in her case she means explicitly bridging the gap between her institution at the time of this essay, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. The social change she seeks to effect is not a raising of the consciousness of university students through cultural critique in the classroom, but reciprocal assistance to community members who can benefit from the specialized training of rhetoricians, while simultaneously offering those scholars the opportunity and permission to learn from their experiences and perceptions. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but I want to be careful not to frame these ideas in language that leads us back to the banking concept in which “the teacher thinks and the students [or community members] are thought about” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 73). She writes:

Some critical theorists believe that the primary means of affecting social change is to translate activism into liberatory classroom pedagogies. This paper seeks to address other ways in which we can affect social change, something more along the lines of civic participation. (7)

I want to note that Cushman does not oppose “civic participation” to “liberatory classroom pedagogies” here, but seems to regard them both as potentially helpful avenues of social action. The problem with relying solely on “liberatory classroom pedagogies,” however, is that in that case the rhetorician doesn’t participate as such in civic life outside the academy. In order to enable this civic participation, rhetoric and composition scholars must bridge the gap between their universities and the surrounding communities. To illustrate this gap, Cushman describes the Approach at Rensselaer,  a massive stone staircase that was “Once an access way to the university on the hill, literally and figuratively” (9), but which had been allowed to fall into utter disrepair by the mid-1990s when Cushman wrote her essay due to disagreements about maintenance responsibilities between the school and the city. For Cushman, the Approach exemplifies the distance between universities and their neighboring communities. She writes,

Everyday, we reproduce this distance so long as a select few gain entrance to universities, so long as we differentiate between experts and novices, and so long as we value certain types of knowledge we can capitalize on through specialization. (10-11)

So one of the issues Cushman raises that we’ll do well to keep in mind, and I think this one might be the most troubling, is that the nature of professionalization in the discipline, including its emphasis on specialization and intellectual property, itself enforces a gap between scholars and the communities next door. Cushman’s own experiences, described in this essay, testify to the persistent difficulties of bridging this gap while remaining invested in the profession’s standards and values.

She draws on the work of Malea Powell to describe how professionalization encourages a “colonizing ideology” in which academics must stake a claim over a particular subject area, defending this claim and displacing any other scholars who happen to already be situated there:

If the scholarly territory happens to be occupied by other scholarly endeavors, our job demands that we show how these original scholars fail to use their territory well, thereby giving us manifest justification for removing their theories from the territory through expansion, co-option, or complete dismissal. In some fundamental ways, we shirk our civil responsibility and always already enact violence under the guise of objective distance, and the thin veil of ‘creating’ knowledge. (11)

Obviously, this colonizing ideology applies not only to the work of other scholars, but to the people we theorize in the course of staking out an academic specialization for ourselves. The alternative isn’t a complete disavowal of scholarly work, but an approach to scholarship that “take[s] social responsibility for the people from and with whom we come to understand a topic” (11), that is, a scholarship that doesn’t theorize about people, but in communication with them. This means seeing ourselves as participants within a community rather than experts postulating about the community from the privileged position of the ivory tower.

Cushman is careful to make plain that she’s not talking about making rhetoric and composition scholars social workers, or an army of saviors from on high marching into their communities to deliver liberation. Instead, she’s asking us to reflect on our roles in the communities we’re already part of, both the academic community and the larger community of which the academy is part, and how these roles relate to one another:

I am asking for a deeper consideration of the civic purpose of our positions in the academy, of what we do with our knowledge, for whom, and by what means. I am asking for a shift in our critical focus away from our own navels, Madonna, and cereal boxes to the ways in which we can begin to locate ourselves within the democratic processes of everyday teaching and learning in our neighborhoods. (12)

At this point in her essay, Cushman goes on to offer examples from her own experience of what this might mean and how it might work, or not work. It’s a section well-worth reading for how it illustrates both the approach to civic participation Cushman advocates and the pitfalls of professional, academic perspectives. I’m not going to describe the remainder of Cushman’s essay in detail for the sake of keeping this post near the one-thousand word mark and in the interest of not boring you to death.

I do want to touch on one, last, major point in Cushman’s essay, however, and that is that we should be careful of assuming that only broad collective action is helpful or constitutes legitimate social action. She writes that “Most current accounts of activism in cultural studies don’t do justice to social change taking place in day-to-day interactions,” and argues for a greater appreciation of “the ways in which people use language and literacy to challenge and alter the circumstances of daily life” (12). In other words, Cushman advocates a conception of social action that isn’t exclusively invested in “sweeping social upheavals” (12), but in the ways the scholar’s specialization can benefit community members in their daily pursuit of better lives for themselves and their families, which might include such apparently mundane tasks as assisting them with applications for loans, jobs, or housing, as well as helping them articulate their perspectives in ways that might help their voices be heard where they’ve previously been dismissed or ignored (and, I should note here, it’s important that this civic participation is reciprocal and that the scholar not see herself as a savior liberating the masses; what community members have to offer the scholar are their own perspectives and experience and the authorization of the scholar’s theorizing of the community they both participate in).

Cushman anticipates the claim that such an approach to activism consists merely of “coping devices” (14), and she articulates an able defense that I’m not going to cover in detail here. One question that Cushman’s work leaves open for me, however, is whether this form of activism challenges the status quo, or only assists members of the community in improving their material conditions while perpetuating it. I don’t want to suggest that the latter would be a fault; I certainly don’t object to people seeking better standing for themselves, but I do want to maintain a space for critiques of the larger social order as a whole or in part. I don’t believe such critiques and the kind of civic participation Cushman describes are mutually exclusive, however, and I’d like to think that she’d agree with me. So, a better question would probably be: how can liberatory pedagogy and civic participation both be utilized to promote social change in-and-outside the academy? Or, even better, what can liberatory pedagogy learn from civic participation?

Academic writing, the ivory fortress, and the virtues of vacillation

calvin-and-hobbes-academic-writingI wanted to start by writing about Peter Elbow’s OUP blog entry, “Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all” because I’ve thought repeatedly about what Elbow has to say about academic writing since reading it for the first time and because it touches on several topics I believe will continue to loom large as this blog develops and expands: the qualities of academic writing; what distinguishes it as a genre, distinct from other genres (say journalism, or creative nonfiction); the attitudes, perspectives, and practices implied by such a form of writing; the relationship between this type of writing and the training that produces it; and the political, which is to say, “real world” ramifications of how we write and talk about things.

Elbow writes that what he’s interested in talking about is the tangential quality of academic writing that comes from the particularly academic compulsion to qualify statements, and what initially struck me was his characterization of some strains of academic writing as defensive, written less to be understood than to be impenetrable and unassailable. In this case, “strong-minded, confident academics” carefully reinforce their arguments against anticipated counter-arguments, prioritizing this defensive maneuvering over accessible presentations of their own points. To read such prose is to encounter “a mind constantly on guard,” and Elbow emphasizes that such writing is a product of the way that nascent academics are taught to write during their educations:

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

Elbow goes on to say that this tendency towards branching qualifications in academic writing comes in a couple of distinct species: the “steel-plated prose” of the defensive variety described above, and, alternatively, the writing of academics who “feel loyalty to conflicting points of view,” and so try to present the merits of both positions simultaneously, as in Elbow’s example, “X, and yet on the other hand Y . . .”

The problem with the hyper-defensive variety of academic writing, of course, is that prose written to be unassailable is by its very function unlikely to be accessible; it’s the “intimidating and impenetrable fog” that Calvin prides himself on in Bill Watterson’s comic strip. Elbow doesn’t offer a defense of this, and I wouldn’t expect him to. But he does go on to describe a virtue of the second variety of academic hyper-qualification, namely that this type of writing, with it’s daunting network of qualifications and references, actually models something helpful: an ability to consider multiple apparently contradictory arguments simultaneously, or, as Elbow puts it “the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas,” which he describes as a “a habit of mind that can help people avoid being dogmatic or narrow-minded.” This isn’t the doublethink described by George Orwell in 1984, “he power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” at least unless I greatly misunderstand what Elbow is getting at. Doublethink involves the acceptance of logical contradictions wherein the meanings of the key terms are cancelled out (as in the Party’s slogans “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery”). What Elbow describes is instead the effort to apprehend and convey the nuances of a complex subject while considering multiple perspectives.

Elbow argues that this approach helps people “move past either/or conflicts and transcend the terms in which an issue is framed,” and I’m inclined to agree. In fact, this is a version of something I’ve repeatedly emphasized to my own students: the notion that what distinguishes good academic writing is the author’s effort not to reduce the complexity of subjects she writes about. I suspect that this often runs counter to the students’ own ideas about what their writing is supposed to do; many seem to come to college with a strong impression that their writing is supposed to simplify, reduce, and streamline the topics and texts they’re asked to write about.

There’s a great tendency in our culture towards simplification. We can see this clearly in advertisements and political rhetoric, where this tendency is exemplified by the prioritization of soundbites, the desire for short phrases that sound clever and authoritative. Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” offered a tidy and clever-sounding justification for that administration’s policies, but also reduced the vastly complex issue of government and its functions to a simple binary. This way of framing issues in terms of simple either/or binaries makes the politician something akin to Phil Hartman’s Saturday Night Live version of Frankenstein’s monster, shouting “fire bad!” (or, in this case, “government bad!”).

Academic writing and good writing instruction can be one defense against this tendency towards over-simplification and the sloppy, complacent thinking it encourages (though probably not very successfully if the academic writing is of the highly fortified, impenetrable variety); another defense is good art.