Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What does it mean to study rhetoric or composition?

Clancy has brought my attention to a post in The Valve. I've commented on this post both in Clancy's blog and in The Valve. Now I want to raise an issue that goes well beyond this article and into what it means to be a scholar of composition or rhetoric.

Mark Bauerlein, who teaches literature at Emory, says that "to speak responsibly about racial identity and race relations requires a lot more inquiry into the history, econoomics, demographics, and psychology of race relations than may be found in the doctoral curriculum in composition." In other words, composition scholars don't know enough about race relations to speak responsibly about it. Professional scientists often make similar claims about rhetoricians of science. Rhetoricians aren't scientists and don't know enough about science to speak responsibly about it.

I don't think those are fair statements. Composition scholars are fond of pointing out that you can't write writing. You have to write about something. So the study of composition becomes the study not only of the language used, but of its subject matter. The same holds true for the study of rhetoric. That's one of the reasons Quintilian called for rhetoricians to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of subject matters. If they knew nothing of the subject, they couldn't speak responsibly about it. It's also one of the reasons that the best doctoral programs in rhetoric today require many classes in subjects outside of rhetoric.

So what are we to make of rhetoric and composition scholars who do not, in fact, have advanced training in areas outside of rhetoric or composition? Do I have the right to analyze a book about race relations, or eighteenth-century chemistry, or the Holocaust, even though I hold degrees in none of those areas? I don't see why not. As an English major, I routinely wrote papers about novels, although I will never be a novelist. No one seemed to find that odd. For that matter, I once wrote a paper about the sexual power structure demonstrated in Huckleberry Finn, even though I had no real training in that area. The paper still got an A.

To study rhetoric is to study other subjects, as well. Sometimes rhetoricians are experts in those subjects. Sometimes they're not. Either way, their background in rhetorical criticism provides a filter that creates a different picture of the subject than anyone else would see. I think there can be great value in sharing those pictures.


Blogger triplikido said...

These are interesting blog entries even if they do whizz way over my head.

2:26 AM  
Blogger Thomas Wright said...

Well, some of them are intended (I guess) for an audience with formal training in rhetoric. If I were to send them back to the person I was before I majored in the subject, they wouldn't make much sense to me, either.

But I have a hunch that many of them, you can follow just fine. And some of them you can follow in places--and if you get lost in other places, that just means they're an accurate representation of life. (Most of us tend to understand some aspects of life, but not others.)

I'm glad you've taken the time to look this over.

9:29 AM  

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