A funny thing happened while I was struggling to define and understand rhetorical agency and how my work connects with it...I not only learned about rhetorical agency but found it as well.
I have been struggling for months with situating my research within the bounds of technical communication and rhetoric (see The Forgotten "R") while simultaneously reading the research I needed to inform that work. What truly complicated the boundaries for me (I only just realized) is that so much of that research fell within the disciplines of psychology and education with just a smattering of composition work. I needed this work to define and ground my research -- to feed it -- but I also needed to locate my work (which is not in psychology, education, or composition) within the discipline of rhetoric.
In "How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency?", Cheryl Geisler defines rhetoric as a productive art and says that rhetorical inquiry should "make a difference in the world". She asks how we can create a better society through the pursuit of rhetoric.
This makes me happy as I feel that I have at last found a home for my work that satisfies my needs and interests. I see composition and writing studies to be focused more on academic writing or "schooled literacy" (to borrow from Rick Evans). This is an interest of mine but not the focus of my dissertation work. I also do not want to be pigeonholed as a compositionist as my research and teaching interests are much broader. I am also interested in the work of technical communication (which Grabill defines as communicative labor situated in the social institutions of public life (I really like that definition). Reading Geisler helped me understand (better) that rhetoric encompasses both this societal and educational mission governing communication as Andrea Lunsford defines rhetoric as "the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication." I believe my research has implications for composition but is more situated in the communicative labor of a social institution. Either way I'm covered if I focus on rhetorical inquiry.
Now that I have announced my intent to create a rhetorical inquiry that makes a difference in the world I must describe it more fully. I return again to the work of Albert Bandura in social cognitive theory to set the stage. I feel more comfortable with this revisit as I now understand (better) the path I must travel to return to rhetoric. Bandura posits that people can effect change in themselves and their situations. This is clearly something rhetoricians need to believe (accept, embrace) or our work would be an exercise in futility. But where does that belief take us?
One of the ways people effect change, according to Bandura, is through self-efficacy. He defines self-efficacy as a person's confidence in their ability to utilize specific skills. Bandura maintains that self-efficacy and agency are interdependent. People do not pursue activities if they doubt they can do what it takes [self-efficacy] to succeed. Why bother, right? Similarly, people do not pursue activities if they doubt they have the power [agency] to act/enact change.
Bandura says the exercise of personal agency is achieved through reflective and regulative thought, the skills at one's command, and self influence (that combination of self efficacy and agency). He points out that skill is not a fixed property (a battle we continually fight as teachers of writing) but has generative capability that must be organized and effectively orchestrated. He says there is a marked difference between possession of knowledge and skills -- and being able to use them under difficult (and different) circumstances. In essence this is the problem of transfer that has dominated so much rhetorical conversation in recent years.
I am interested in the ways that social cognitive theory (self-efficacy and personal agency) interacts (or is it intersects?) with rhetorical agency to effect transfer. I am looking at the short- and long-term impact of negotiated writing (such as that found in collaborative and libratory writing pedagogies) on rhetorical agency and writing self-efficacy.
Carmen Werder makes a call for rhetoric in general to move from individual efficacy to collective agency in "Rhetorical Agency: Seeing the Ethics of it All". For Werder rhetorical agency is about persuasion rather than exerting control over others through the use of power; negotiating with others through dialectic interplay rather than simply communicating to others.
In "Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric", Michael Leff points out that individual agency in traditional humanistic rhetoric was held entirely by the rhetor. The humanistic rhetor was active and in control, although admittedly constrained by the demands of the audience, while the audience was passive. Like Werder, Geisler describes agency in postmodern rhetoric as socially constructed.
While Geisler defines rhetorical agency as the capacity of the rhetor to act, she also points out that only a select few have enjoyed traditional rhetorical agency while linking rhetorical action and social change. She says it is important to consider in what sense can the actions of the rhetor be linked to consequences in the world. She argues that it is rhetoric's mission to educate rhetors to have agency and to intervene (as in support and encourage) in the skills of the rhetorical agents with whom we come in contact.
Geisler says rhetorical agency manifests itself in the ability to identify and manage, orchestrate, resources for communication. I believe this brings us back, full circle, to writing self efficacy as a tool to achieve that educational mission as Geisler outlines it. It is my job as a rhetorician and educator to facilitate the acquisition of these skills, and their orchestration, in other rhetorical agents. I can do this both in the classroom and through my research.
Geisler's goal for rhetoric is for rhetoric to contribute to the development of a society that grants agency more broadly which ties in well with the goals of my research -- just as Grabill argues research should encourage emancipation, empowerment, and social change.