Rhetoric Here, There, Then, Now

1 0 674

This blog was originally posted on March 3rd, 2014.

Writing-about-writing is invested in having students encounter research on writing that may upset their (and their culture’s) everyday conceptions of writing. And that makes a conference like last week’s Writing Research Across Borders meeting in Paris last week an awfully interesting place to be. You’re surrounded by mounds of data on cutting-edge questions like how ideas flow in the creation of writing, how writers in the humanities actually cite sources, and what students seem to really take away from a variety of different writing pedagogies.

You also strike up conversations with colleagues from around the world, like one I had with a professor from Australia. She observed that many Australian writing instructors are only just awakening to the possibilities rhetorical theory offers for writing instruction. Rhetoric seems to have been, for the past 50 years, a pretty distinctly American sport when it comes to writing instruction.

Yet for all we do in America with rhetoric, in many ways it’s like the 20thcentury never existed … or that much after 300 B.C. has. Because what the average American college writing instructor seems to know about rhetoric is Aristotle: logos, ethos, and pathos. Advanced knowledge of rhetoric includes the five canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) and, at a real stretch, kairos. This is the instruction that dominates American writing textbooks.

What I’m interested in these days is how Aristotle and other rhetorical theorists of the time were limited by their world, and how when we read the hallowed words of the classical Greek philosophers we do not consider the whole of their rhetorical situation.

What might Aristotle have said differently about rhetoric if he had lived in a world where humans could move faster than 25 miles per hour (on the back of a horse)? Which was also pretty much the top speed for information transmission, apart from line-of-sight mirror flashes and smoke (on a clear day).

What might Aristotle have said about rhetoric had he lived in a world where writing was not a specialized activity of working-class scribes? What about a world in which a printing press would make possible the writing of a text for more than lecture notes to one’s students?

And this of course is not to mention the possibly of speaking to an audience of more than a few thousand people at once, or more importantlyin one physical location small enough to be reached by a single unamplified human voice. How about a world where texts were revised after writing instead of being entirely mentally composed before any words were written down? (And where The Illiad could be an oral story told entirely from memory!) Aristotle could not imagine these worlds.

And nor can his rhetoric, really. What we have in classical rhetoric is principles for how to give a good speech in a handful of very formal rhetorical situations. Yet these are the principles that stand in for most of the rhetorical instruction U.S. students receive. It’s a far sight better than an absence of attention to rhetoric. But I hope as other writing instructors across the world increase their use of rhetorical theory, they look at more than our country has tended to for the past 50 years. In my next post, if more pressing matters don’t present themselves, I’ll write more about what that could be.

About the Author
Doug Downs is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at Montana State University. His research interests center on research-writing pedagogy and facilitating undergraduate research both in first-year composition and across the undergraduate curriculum. He continues to work extensively with Elizabeth Wardle on writing-about-writing pedagogies and is currently studying problems of researcher authority in undergraduate research in the humanities.