Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgotten "R"

Preparing for your doctoral qualifying exam is more than a bit like scrapbooking. I think this might be true anyway since my scrapbooks are all hideously in need of updating. Doctoral studies have a way of doing that to you. I have spent a great deal of time lately sifting and sorting through books, articles, and notes -- and taken many walks down memory lane in the process. This "scrapbooking" process has also allowed me to take a step back and look at all this academic clutter to see it as a whole and to see patterns I had either missed the first time around or forgotten about while in the midst of gathering new information. Some of those discoveries will provide fodder (hopefully) for my qualifying exam and my dissertation, but one discovery is much more foundational -- my identity as a rhetorician.

I once embraced and celebrated this identity but somewhere during the process of my coursework I was seduced by the idea of technical communication. Further complicating matters was my marriage to composition as a general education writing teacher. My professional identity has always been connected to writing (as a professional writer and editor as well as published novelist before becoming a teacher of writing). This identity became even more intertwined when I took on the role of a National Writing Project site director. The National Writing Project focuses on improving the teaching of writing and one of the main methods for achieving this goal is to help teachers become writers themselves. I love this work but do not want to be defined by it either.

All these titles and roles became perplexing to me. Just what was my primary identity? What was my primary role? While the siren song of technical communication was alluring and interesting and full of wonderful challenges I knew that was not the right fit for me -- too much of my work was tied up in the teaching of writing. Maybe someday I would be able to devote myself entirely to that work, and I certainly had many projects I wanted to explore, but not in my current professional position. Certainly composition fit much of work but that description was too confining, too restricting, it chaffed and had to be discarded. I contemplated the term writing studies long and hard as that seemed to encompass all that I was while also offering the ability to embrace all I wanted to be as well. And yet...some nagging notion remained that something still was not right.

Fortunately for me, my weekend reading included Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. This was fortunate because it reminded me that I was a rhetorician -- and that the study of rhetoric covers quite comfortably all the areas of communication that interest me so much as a professional, as a teacher, and as a researcher. Rhetoric includes technical communication, composition, and writing. I didn't need to shop for a new identity -- I just needed to be reminded of one I had tucked into the back of my closet and forgotten. Amazingly, while I have grown and changed since I packed that identity away it still fits well and looks marvelous on me, if I do say so myself.

Booth defines rhetoric as all forms of communication. He shares a number of other popular definitions of rhetoric. A few of my favorites include:

Lloyd Bitzer, 1968 -- "Rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action."

Jacques Derrida, 1990 -- "We should not neglect rhetoric's importance, as if it were simply a formal superstructure or technique exterior to the essential activity. Rhetoric is something decisive in society...[T]here are no politics, there is no society, without rhetoric, without the force of rhetoric."

Andrea Lunsford, 1995 -- "Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication."

Marc Fumaroli, 1999 -- "Rhetoric appears as the connective tissue peculiar to civil society and to its proper finalities, happiness and politic peace hic et nunc."

If a rhetorician is a student of communication, as Booth tells us, then I am indeed a rhetorician. I am not just a communicator or teacher of communication -- but a student of communication. I believe those studies will help me become a better communicator and teacher of communication, but those are not the only reasons I study. I study because I find communication fascinating in all its awe-inspiring power.

Booth reminds us that for millenia the study of rhetoric was considered essential. He is concerned, frightened even, by the way we have bastardized rhetorical education today. I agree that the neglect of rhetorical education "threatens our lives" and in fact our whole world. Yes, rhetrickery has given rhetoric a bad name to most of the world -- and perhaps that may have been one of the reasons I avoided defining myself as a rhetorician -- but I believe that rhetoric has the power to change the world.

Certainly as a teacher I believe rhetoric has the power to change lives. Reading and writing well are key to our personal success in both education and professional life. No one disputes that fact but what has gone so horribly wrong with our education system today -- and hence society -- is that we divorce those "skills" from what makes them so meaningful. In order to read and write well we must learn to read and listen critically so we can then communicate effectively in response.

Booth says that the quality of our lives -- our very survival -- depends on the quality of rhetoric and I think that is certainly a field worthy of dedicating my life to studying and teaching. Now if you will excuse me...I need to go update my web site to make it clear that: Deanna Mascle is a rhetorician.

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