Posted by Dr. Amrit Chadwallah
What does composition, or rhetoric, teach? Should it not teach how to write a good corporate memo? A speech for an immediate superior? How to reduce a complex argument to 15 Powerpoint slides? How to do a cost/benefit analysis? How to write a jingle? How to do talking points for a pundit, or deliver same? How to deflect questions in a Presidential press conference? How to ruin another's reputation with an attack ad? How to whip up a mob? How to talk hate on the radio? How to say nothing eloquently under pressure? How to deal with the media? Why Collin, Vita, Clancy, do composition teachers see themselves as some kind of resistance movement when in fact they are an outsourced corporate training division? (Answer: Because they are paid so little and seethe with resentment.) Is this not, in Marxist terms, alienation and bad faith? I find working in Wealth Bondage quite refreshing by contrast. At least and at last I am being honest about what I do - shining Candidia's boots. And it pays twice what I go teaching English Comp at Baylor. Congrats to Krista on studying for her LSATs. What better use of rhetoric than law? May she represent her client's well.
Hey, Doc: at least composition's hiring these days. There've been a whole lot of unhappy-looking forensic hermeneuticists in the hallways at MLA these past few Decembers.
But, yeah, you're right: there's more than a little of the "resistance movement" attitude in our discipline, to which I'll certainly cop as one of many guilty parties. Collin recently offered, as one possible explanation, the general fear of humanities irrelevance, and Clancy's also recently offered some productive insights on composition's relationship to politics. And sure, part of it is also the "resentment" at low pay and perceived disciplinary snobbery from literature scholars like your colleague the Tutor, some of whom continue to see the work performed by compositionists as not "real" scholarship.
And I think the reasons for that perception are deeply connected to composition's "resistance movement" attitude: because, in higher education, first-year composition courses are still the only course that every (or nearly every) student is required to take, literature scholars see composition as "common" and therefore having no specialized disciplinary value -- and composition scholars see their widespread classrooms as the only place in higher education from which pedagogies of broad institutional and societal change might be enacted.
By the way -- I didn't spot you in the audience, but my conference presentation featuring you, Candidia, the Tutor, et aliis went well, and I'm working on revising it for publication. If you or your colleagues are so inclined, I'd be grateful for any feedback you might offer.
Posted by: Mike | July 10, 2005 at 06:58 PM
Mike, I taught composition proudly and would be proud to do it again. Still remember several of the the students, two and one half decades later. I loved your Paris Hilton piece and linked to it. I am truly flattered to be included in your presentation and essays. You might consider me a friend and fellow sufferer, not a scoffer. The list in this post of debasing misuses of rhetoric include many in which I have toiled in WB. Someone near and dear to me in RL teaches HS English, and we met at a teacher's conference of HS English teachers, meaning writing as well as lit. I live in a house or dumpster always full of composition essays awaiting grading, large stacks, boxes on the floor.
When you ask why comp is flourishing, is it, in your estimation, because the country cherishes the teaching of resistance? Or that corps need a workforce skilled in routine written communication? Aren't the comp teachers meeting a demand for basic literacy? Trying to smuggle critical thinking into the mix is a brave effort. But wouldn't the market be happier if the comp teachers simply taught the routine writing skills without the Marxist slant?
I write this with heavy heart. All these years and I too am still resisting, though I can't say Candidia cares. She seems to relish our resistance in some ways; gives her something to break. Every student deserves a teacher like you, Clancy and Krista who leave the door of WB off the latch. The student can walk into WB better prepared, or walk out. Either way you have given them that moment, that flicker, of choice. Semper fi in teaching too.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 10, 2005 at 08:06 PM
Tutor, your "Photos of Wealth Bondage" link has an open tag.
Posted by: Harry | July 10, 2005 at 08:32 PM
Thanks, think I got it.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 10, 2005 at 08:41 PM
Its interesting that you put things this way, because I have always thought of all of those things as possible goals in my classroom. I have taught Expository Writing in the past, but I've taught various courses in Technical and Professional Writing more often, and I expect that trend to continue. Writing effective corporate memos, and speeches, and persuasive ads are all valuable skills so far as Im concerned. These are the sorts of little documents that change the world. How they change the world is an entirely different matter. My job is to make my students effective communicators. I dont want to teach them to resist anything except stupidity, and I think it would be an abuse of my position to attempt to influence their politics. What I do want to teach them is to always, always think critically. (As a good liberal, Im naiive enough to want to think that anybody who is capable of solid critical thinking will end up on my side. This theory does not play out in real life, of course.)Thanks for the LSAT support. Im not abandoning the PhD, just hoping to augment it. Dont know that Ill be planning on practicing, but a dual appointment would certainly be lovely!
Posted by: Krista | July 10, 2005 at 11:55 PM
Thanks, Krista. Felt the same when I taught. Did a class where we wrote expository essays, lab reports, did debates, even letters to the editor. As you say you can't impose politics, but should teach critical thinking. However, it turns out that critical thinking with students who are pious or indoctrinated in "father knows best" is considered in some places to be liberal or subversive. That for me was the shock in going from NE schools to the deep south to teach. Some reacted to critical thinking as "secular humanism." Socrates was condemned to teach, remember, for teaching the youth of Athens to question (not reject, just question) the gods. Yes, doctrinairre modes, including, propaganda, sophistry, and verbal intimidation can all be useful, so are lies, fictions, and evasions. Also alibis. All are part of rhetoric - which is "value neutral"? Can a bland indifference to truth-telling or authenticity or the damage done by lies - be value neutral? I don't think so. To teach means without ends is also a philosophical position - Machiavelli? Besides you couldn't teach means without ends. The very process of teaching, the modes used, the questions asked, the examples given, the way dissent is handled, all is saturated with and evokes a way of life, one exemplified by the teacher-as-role-model, her "ethos," as much as the ostensible "logos."
Hope, if you do get a law degree, that you blog it as you do it. "To think like a lawyer." In my trade I know many who do. And very few who outgrow it.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 11, 2005 at 08:45 AM
How embarassing -- I completely missed your original post! Looking at the date on it, that would've been when I was in transit to the conference where I presented the Paris Hilton thing, and wasn't able to do much blog reading -- but I'm grateful now to read your post and the comments, which will help much in my revising.
My comment's language was unfortunately vague -- I wasn't accusing you, Tutor, of sharing the attitudes of some lit-scholar "scoffers," just acknowledging your former disciplinary orientation as a lit scholar rather than a comp scholar. My apologies for the vagueness, and thanks for the praise.
In your most recent comment about means and ends, I think you've answered your own (perhaps somewhat facetious?) question about whether "the market" would "be happier," and it also helps me see where my position vis-a-vis politics in the classroom is perhaps a little different from Krista's. Teaching from a perspective informed by Marxist analyses of exploitation is no more or less political an act than teaching from a perspective informed by a capitalist faith in the inherent virtue of markets: there is no inherently value-neutral position from which one might avoid influencing students' politics.
This doesn't mean I believe in spouting Marxist doctrine or what-have-you in the classroom. I do believe, however, that college students are mature and intelligent young adults capable of evaluating the merits of what people tell them -- and the more information they have, the better. Critical thinking means asking questions, and that's what gets one more information.
Posted by: Mike | July 11, 2005 at 09:00 PM
Mike, as a "thought experiment," imagine that you were hired to teach "business English," or "executive writing skills," in a corporation, in their Human Resources Department. You might teach execs, PR people, lobbyists, speechwriters, legal people, advertising people. You would be judged on whether they master the skills that help them do their jobs to a corporate standard. You could still be a "compositionist," and your knowledge of rhetoric would be very helpful. How would the corporate environment change what you do now, or would it change it at all?
In other words, is the mission of a compositionist today in college different from the mission of a basic skills trainer in a company? If you and your peers articulated a "liberal arts" as opposed to "basic skills" rationale for your work then you might not have need for "content envy."
Socrates and a Gorgias could both get that corporate job, but one would not last long. The other would rise rapidly through the ranks.
How would Gorgias do on today's MLA job market among writing teachers? Would he be in demand?
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 11, 2005 at 09:23 PM
"the general fear of humanities irrelevance"
Homonymic resonance for sure okay.
The primary phrase and its terms exciting and imbuing the secondary with a validity that creates the causative anxiety that produces the primary - and so on we go into the hive, singing from the bridge like captives who believe they're bound for an eternal reward, and that they've been good.
Fear of humanities irrelevance proceeds from fear of humanity's irrelevance - as we mold our own gene paths back down toward insect control and total submission to the hive mind.
The basureras are simply drones with no expedient value, cast-off redundant and incompetent workers, they'll eke out their futile existences for a brief while, little better than parasites on the great body of what we really are.
Allowing ourselves to be stunned by the horror of their lives does nothing for them - and it takes away, or at best diminishes what few pleasures our own lives still provide, in these brightly-lit hours of inverse darkness, amid the gathering ecliptic.
Posted by: Juke Moran | July 12, 2005 at 05:42 PM
The humanities are irrelevant, advertising, propaganda, and perception management are central. That is, art is central, only gone bad.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 12, 2005 at 07:48 PM
The wingnut patricians and their hired guns are not so concerned with the material of what's taught in the humanities -- the "content". They are obsessed with the humanities' potential for removing the scales from the eyes of the students. The ability to construct a coherent, extemporaneous, defense against smears, enforced ignorance, glurge and , most of all, hypocrisy is what bothers them. Their stock in trade is sanctimony. Someone who can pen a letter, hold his own in a debate or dig through the records and send them to jail is an affront to the Natural Order®
When propaganda is no longer a viable weapon, they have to turn to violence. There are too many people to be controlled that way. This is far more efficient.
The arts are social commentary. At their best, they make people think in powerful ways. For glurge socked wingnuts, whose moral sensibilities for the day can be mass mailed and faxed, that is anathema.
Posted by: Harry | July 12, 2005 at 08:07 PM
Thanks, Harry, blogged the link.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 12, 2005 at 09:02 PM
The humanities also remind us - of what we are, what we were, where we come from, and what it's like, what it's been like, for others; and what's possible - not only what is, but that the undreamed of is possible.
Slavery was broken by the humanities, and the racist remnants of it were made marginal by the humanities. A struggle that continues.
So, while I agree that they're(it's) about social commentary, they're also commentary about what isn't here.
Dreams, and dreams in art, are as valid and vital as any realism.
Posted by: rollo | July 12, 2005 at 10:52 PM
I think you performed an interesting elision, Tutor, from "writing skills" to "basic skills," and then used that to set up an split between "liberal arts" and "basic skills." As a partial answer to your question: the artes liberales were the characteristics of a Roman freeman -- hence, as you know, the root word liber. Is the free man the opposite of the wage slave? I don't think so, but there tends to be only one ultimate horizon of corporate work: profit. The liberal education serves many ends, many values, and has diverse perspectives and diverse horizons. I think Collin, Clancy, and others have very rightly critiqued Fulkerson's unfortunate use of the term "content envy," and if you look at most of my colleagues' syllabi, there's a whole lot more going on during our semesters than "basic skills." I'd suggest that in some ways, composition -- as a generally humanities-oriented cross-university course -- deals in writing and perceptions that cannot, in the cash-driven corporate sense, be "managed." So I guess that's my response to your thought experience: the corporation and the academy can use some of the same (not-so-basic) "skills," but I'll always prefer the diversity of purposes in the academy to the single-minded profit motive.
And, yes, I know that completely sidesteps the sort of work you do for philanthropic ends (I did work briefly in the employee-education division of a very large DC-based nonprofit), which raises another set of questions: I've taught a few courses for my university's for-profit wing, and the scheduling and labor pressures made those courses markedly worse; from such scant experience -- and the massive amounts of corresponing evidence offered by the Invisible Adjunct and her interlocutors -- I might argue that the pressures of profit-oriented higher education result in an overall poorer experience for both teachers and students. What does that mean for your work? Does that carry any implications for non-educational organizations, whether profit-oriented or non-?
Posted by: Mike | July 12, 2005 at 11:15 PM
Thanks, Mike. The subjects you are addressing in your comment are very interesting to me. You have the advantage of knowing what you are talking about, when it comes to the teaching of rhetoric today. I am trying to learn through you. From my distant perspective, it seems that literature is less popular as a subject than it was a generation ago. Yet composition, apparently, has emerged as a whole new career path. I am wondering if this isn't a reversion to "Trade School." Kids need to read and write. Literature is a luxury and boring at that. So, let's strip it all down to essentials and drill them in the modes of writing, not as a way to think critically, but to qualify for routine jobs. Given that the teachers of writing need a PhD as the "ticket to punched" for university educators, they learn all kinds of allied disciplines to add dignity and gravitas to the endless grading of semi-illiterate writing. But the core of it, the reason the discipline exists, and the reason kids enroll, is to learn how to write, as they might learn how to use a computer, or a calculator. If they can't write, they don't get a white collar job.
In WB we do pretend that the free citizen schooled in liberal arts, eshewing the vulgarity of Candidia, is a wage slave on company time but becomes a free citizen again in the Dumpster after work. Of course that is an opera buffa exaggeration.
But I wonder if a simple supply and demand analysis wouldn't account for the rise of rhetoric as a profession. Too many grads can't write even a basic memo or job app. So, teach 'em, and stow all the literary hoo-ha.
I did actually copy and paste Krista's grad school syllabus, from one of her courses, into my palm pilot. I had hoped to find time to read around in it. Haven't yet, but it was a marvelously intelligent and diverse interdisciplinary set of readings.
Techne or wisdom, though? At the point of attack? When all is said and done what are you paid to do? Train? Or educate?
Both, you say, but the pressure to train seems to increase every year. The profesors want to educate, but I wonder if the administration and students wouldn't settle for a more efficient method to teach basic literacy.
The liberal arts "cannot be managed" - I love that thought. It sure can on company time, though. Can we say that from the Roman tradition, where the elite was taught the liberal arts, now those arts are the pleasure of Candidia's insubordinate slaves? I honestly feel that way, often. I am managed but good. Yet the liberal arts offer a kind of freedom, if only in my head, or in the Dumpster. Where the liberal arts were, as education for the elite, now we have the MBA. And the Greek poet is a Roman Centurion's slave, teaching his son the rudiments of writing (?)
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 13, 2005 at 08:34 AM
Actually, Tutor, I think literature is just as popular a subject as it was twenty years ago, or even more so, to the point where the job market is absolutely glutted with new literature PhDs. What's happened in the space of a generation (or, more properly, two; it's just that the change started slowly) is that the view of teaching composition has shifted from the simple correction of students' semi-illiterate essays on literature (this being the complaint, in fact, which was the reason for Charles Eliot Norton's institution of the first required composition courses at Harvard at the very end of the 19th century) to an understanding of writing as a complex and recursive process, the proper teaching of which requires understandings of its sophisticated social, interpretive, and rhetorical workings. So I'd argue for the opposite trend: rather than a return to the skill-based techniques-to-be-mastered of the trade school, composition has become a discipline in its own right (at last count, I was familiar with five book-length histories of the discipline), with its own array of scholarly journals and philosophical approaches, like those analyzed in the Fulkerson review essay to which Collin and Clancy and others responded: in other words, those of us in the discipline like to tell ourselves that it's more than mere skill; more than a techne. Plato, in between writing the Gorgias and the Phaedrus, made that shift, as well, from calling rhetoric a "knack" to something much more difficult and thorny.
But yes, I also agree that the pressure to train continues to increase. Part of that pressure, which I'm trying to work through now in my dissertation, is economic. But another part of the pressure -- one that is all too often ignored, but that many scholars have demonstrated is the root cause for the occasionally widespread uproars over "literacy crises" in the popular media -- is that more people are going to college who couldn't go to college before: supply and demand, as you say. But when previously shut-out groups gain access to higher education, yes, there are going to be adjustments to make -- and the periodic dips and then gradual rises in "standards" are symptoms not of crisis, but of the fact that more people are getting access to more education than they had a generation or two ago. Which, yes, the self-perceived elites may certainly feel threatened by, and so complain about, and you shall know them as self-perceived elites by those complaints. Me, I'm happy to have the students come into my classrooms each semester grumbling that they hate writing, that they suck at it, and leave thinking that maybe writing isn't such a bad thing, after all.
Posted by: Mike | July 13, 2005 at 01:14 PM
So, writing is decoupled from literature, history, business courses, etc. and taught as an area in itself? And the goal is not only mastery of writing as a skill, but learning to think critically? (Writing well requires thinking well.)
Do professors of literature then shift the burden of writing as a skill to rhetoric faculty?
That is, do lit teachers still see teaching students to write well as part of the discipline of what was called "English Language and Literature"?
What you say about junior collegs and non-traditonal students rings true, but doesn't that point towwards rhetoric classes a remedial?
I may be blundering around here naively in what is a politically heated conversation. My interest is more personal. Having taught English lit and also English Compositon (what you would now call rhetoric) in the late 70's and early 80's, I am trying to aligm my 25 year old experience base with your much more up to date understanding. Thanks for remediating me.
By the way, teaching people to think clearly, and write well, for a wide variety of audiences, occassions, and purposes is not something that I ever considered easy or trivial. "Writing well" is so relative to era, discipline, audience, content and purpose that it always struck me that teachers of writing who only knew literary modes never did have the breadth required to "write well" across the curriculum.
Posted by: Tutor | July 13, 2005 at 05:02 PM
The one course I ever took specifically in writing was in technical writing and it was truly a disappointment. A credit necessary for getting a degree and little more. I already had more experience writing in that context than the teacher did. The semester before I had taken a software engineering lab where there was more plain technical writing in the project writeups than the actual writing course. My TA even commented on one of my project how he was amazed at how I did such good work in such a short writeup (I would typically turn in about 20 pages including code and output while most turned in 40-50). Why? Because I had actual experience doing programming and technical writing in a work context.
Blogging and writting in online community contexts is yet another distinct writing space. Thanks again for such an inviting space to practice, and the draw of a variety of scholars who can and do broaden the spectrum more than is possible in any university curriculum.
Posted by: Gerry | July 13, 2005 at 06:52 PM
One further datapoint for this discussion. On NPR about a week back, the topic was the writing portion of new standardized tests. When I took them, this was new to the English Achievement tests, and I gather that now they have been added to the standard SAT English tests. The discussion was about the difficulty in recruiting graders for the essays, mostly drawn from high-school and other teachers.
The single biggest predictor of the score an essay would receive was its length. Accuracy and logical flow, and any other quality metric was out the window. Now I think I know why I got such a low score on that particular test.
Posted by: Gerry | July 13, 2005 at 06:56 PM
Long and illegible got me through all kinds of exams.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 13, 2005 at 08:12 PM
I am wondering if this isn't a reversion to "Trade School." Kids need to read and write. Literature is a luxury and boring at that. So, let's strip it all down to essentials and drill them in the modes of writing, not as a way to think critically, but to qualify for routine jobs.
Think "best practices" and "competency models".
Learning how to write may very well not be the same thing as learning how to think critically, although the two may bleed into each other or offer the crack where the light gets in ... which is probably - by the time adulthood arrives - only left to the individual to choose .. if he or she knows it to be a possibility.
Posted by: JJ Comoner | July 13, 2005 at 09:51 PM
Tutor, literature professors have become less and less interested in teaching composition, and many literature professors view it as dirty and uninteresting scut-work, very much beneath them, and so -- in many places -- the teaching of writing has started to move outside of English departments, resulting in an even further Balkanization of English into literature, creative writing, and composition. I'm not happy about such Balkanization, but other folks think it's a good thing.
And, yes, it's a politically heated discussion; lots of people with strong feelings on all sides of the issue. A number of years, one scholar rather wryly noted that American culture tends to privilege consumption over production, and that privileging extends even to texts, so no wonder literature (as the consumption of texts) is privileged over composition (as the production of texts). If I recall correctly, wasn't some of your time at Yale? The "theory wars" of which I'm guessing you saw the historical peak filtered into composition, as well, though it took a few years, and were partly responsible for composition's "social turn." The thing is, despite such exceptions as the terrific work of Nancy Sommers at Harvard, I get the impression that the leading edge of change in composition isn't at the Ivies, but at big public universities -- which may account for your experience of composition being different from that of others.
Gerry, there's been a lot of talk in our field about that new portion of the SAT, and questions about precisely what it's supposed to measure. Standardized testing is a big business, with lots of profits to be made. And, yeah, I shook my head when I saw the thing about length being the best predictor of score.
Posted by: Mike | July 14, 2005 at 05:54 PM
Yes, at Yale 75-81, not the peak of the culture wars but the hot war within the department, the coup, if you will, by de Man, Derrida, Hartman, Hillis Miller, and Bloom - the Yale Mafia - that became a culture war as the grad students, loyal to their leaders, deconstructing all in sight headed nattering into teaching positions. Or actually, almost all of us ended in the Dumpster. Of the 35 in my class I was one of three who got a fulltime job, in 81, teaching, in my case, at a Methodist College in Birmingham, AL, before seeing that what if any future I had lay elsewhere. I can't think of a worse role model for business English than de Man or Derrida, or Bloom, even. Which is not an insult, I am sure, kind of a backhanded compliment. But, sure, teaching remedial English would not be Ivy work - supposedly. It would be for the Junior Colleges and big state schools who let all kinds of people in and give them a chance to learn.
The Critical Theory flavor that I do detect in you and Clancy and Krista, in the way you have been taught, is clearly (and to me very sadly) the late and greatly diminished aftershock of Yale '75. Only now it is the new dogma. Not even new, the aging dogam. You, though, have read Cicero and the Roman rhetoricians too. Wish you would write more about that.
What I was trying to suggest, Mike, is that the Critical Theory, semi-Marxist, starch in the prose of those named above is out of whack with your real role in life, which is to reach the half-literate how to qualify for basic white collar jobs. ("Competency" preferably tested and verified, as per Foucault. You are the needle inscribing them with the basic writing drill of corporate life). If you want to teach critical thinking beyond that, more power to you. It may be the only chance they get. But to think of your work as subversive in any way, is - well - it makes me want to almost cry. Your job is to make round pegs for round corporate holes. If you make these kids write like you do, with all the hotshot Parisian stuff, they are doomed in corporate life. They would be written off as pointy-heads and mocked.
Give them role models like Ben Jonson, Dryden, Horace, or E.B. White, or given them models drawn from real business genres, like the memo evading responsibility through obfuscation, or the powerpoint sales pitch, or give them exercises not to find their own voice but to lip synch Bush or Cheney, or some other public figure, as a ghostwriter would, or speechwriter. Have them interview the dumbest jock on campus and do, "My Secrets of Success in Life," by A. Jock, as told to your student, the ghostwriter.
I have a cruel theory, which makes Krista so mad, she writes me with her fist cocked, that people who teach writing in uninspiring places in the midwest, say, or deep south, who are doomed and condemned to the worst kind of drudgery, hang out at the Dairy Queen, reading Derrida or Lyotard, not the help those poor children of lower and middle class learn the rudiments of reading and writing, but to take a vacation in their own mind, to give them as lost intellectuals, as Dumpster Intellectuals, cast offs, a sense of belonging to something chic and cool. Something foreign, as if they in that Dairy Queen, among the farmers with mesh hats and the teenagers with their peircings and tats were somehow in a bistro on the left bank.
Cruel? Yes, and you know why? I have felt all that, teaching Blake to complacent relgious zealots in AL, and English Comp too, day after day. I too longed to think that I was not some dumpster crap teaching the dummies how to write a simple sentence, how to painfully parse the simplest idea, but a True Intellectual in Exile.
Mike, you are ex-Army, and I don't think your skin is thin enough for me to wound it. This is not meant as "soul murder," or a cheap shot, but as the long pent up confession of man who has been there, to where the career ends, eating a Frosty Float among the illiterate, and wondering, "My God, is that all there is after all these years?" What does Blake's Prophetic Works, or the expository essay, have to do with these good people? Why not teach them to write a memo and leave it that?
Depressed, I feel that way. In better moments I truly admire those who do it well year after year. The young are blessed if they can have your full attention, or Krista's or Clancy's.
Forgive me if I have drenched myself in bile. Teaching writing is a noble trade. I hope you do it for a long time and find fulfillment in it, and a good career. Teachers are secular saints. Philanthropy is my professional interest these days, but among the real givers are those who are grading papers tonight, tomorrow night, and every year until retirement. My treat at Dairy Queen, OK? You bring Marx, or Cicero; I'll bring Blake. Or at least drop round for a Thunderbird here in the Dumpster out behind WB.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 14, 2005 at 08:26 PM
That Cicero guy is alright. I read a book of his letters he wrote to some people a long time ago. Bought it on the street, St. Marks Place, back in 1987, when I was living in the East Village in a tenement between two abandoned buildings filled with squatters, and working as a taxi driver. Got me some Petronius too, real cheap, from the same dealers. What a head rush. Reading those books made me realize people back then weren't so dumb.
Posted by: klaus | July 14, 2005 at 09:31 PM
I wish I still had those books but they got burned up in a house fire. They only cost a quarter, like most of the other books that got burned, so it wasn't that bad.
I'm trying to figure out what this thread is about. I went to a public university but I didn't have to take any composition or "101" courses my first year because I was in an experiment. Instead we took a bunch of interconnected courses that taught rhetoric, reason, philosophy and literature. I forget what it was called, but it was learning stuff like "if a = b and b=c then a=d", plus learning about Plato and Aristotle, Dickens, Dosteoyevsky, Shakespeare and some other people. It was supposed to challenge your mind. I remember one of the classes we were covering Shakespeare's Sonnetts and nobody could figure out what it meant, until I did, and people were like "how did you figure out what it meant?" That was a long time ago. Otherwise, if I could remember, I'd tell you how. Anyways I got an "A". That was the only college course I remember where a teacher actually took an interest in me, personally, and I still had three years left to go!
I guess they don't have those courses anymore.
Sounds like Krista's LSAT's experience was rather daunting. I signed up for the GRE, but I was working nights in a warehouse and the test was really early the morning so after ten minutes I said "fuck it" (not out loud) and left.
Posted by: klaus | July 15, 2005 at 03:17 PM
Klaus, I wish more schools did things like the interconnected courses you describe. Stanley Aronowitz proposes something similar at the end of The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning, but he's a big fat Marxist so nobody's going to bother listening to him.
Tutor, I hope I might convince you that composition isn't, as you call it, "remedial," and in fact consists of a bit more than teaching "the half-literate how to qualify for basic white collar jobs." In my familiarity with the Wealth Bondage attention to rhetoric and mendacity, I understand you're having some fun with me by constructing it as such, but, well, I need a break from reading Bourdieu (that despicable hotshot Parisian), so I'll take the bait.
The argument you offer above constructs the only necessary purpose of writing as serving the ends of business, of profit. With such a purpose -- marketing memoranda as simple and easily digestible McNuggets of meaning -- anything more complicated becomes the poseur's pseudointellectual self-indulgent word-wanking. This understanding is what I'd call instrumental literacy, the opposite of critical literacy. The instrumental position declares writing to be an easily controlled and value-neutral tool, a transparent bucket of language into which the writer places Meaning and hands it to the reader, who removes that Meaning unaltered and understands it perfectly. The instrumental position, in contrast to the critical position, denies complexity and says: quit asking questions.
But you've read Juvenal and Pliny; you've seen their knowledge that the same words could mean different things to different people -- look at how Pliny stumbles over himself in the Panegyricus to sort out the meanings that he knows the emperor will take one way and the people another; look at how Cicero does the same in the Pro Ligario -- and you know quite well that there's more to writing than the instrumental "teaching the dummies how to write a simple sentence," as Cicero's six (!) treatises on rhetorical theory well indicate, as the twelve volumes of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria well indicate.
But Quintilian was a hypocrite, you'll protest; he blathered on about the "good man writing well" while toadying up to -- and taking paychecks from -- vicious despots, when in reality the only meaningful rhetoric of his time was, as Tacitus described it, "gain-getting." Rhetoric in the service of profit, one might say. And so today, in the era of the increasing corporatization of higher education, one can only see those fools who try to teach something other than "gain-getting" rhetoric as equally hypocritical -- yes?
Posted by: Mike | July 15, 2005 at 03:50 PM
"The instrumental position declares writing to be an easily controlled and value-neutral tool, a transparent bucket of language into which the writer places Meaning and hands it to the reader, who removes that Meaning unaltered and understands it perfectly. The instrumental position, in contrast to the critical position, denies complexity and says: quit asking questions."
That's pretty interesting. Once I found a box of books in the basement of a house I was renting (I was down there to try and fix the furnace because it wasn't working right, and holy cow, there was a break in the gasline and flames were shooting out (but this isn't the house that burned down, that was another one)), and one of the books was called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Another one was the complete short stories of Ernest Hemingway and I still have that one because it didn't get burnt in that other house, but Seven Types of Ambiguity did.
I think that this book Seven Types of Ambiguity said that there's both ambiguity and also what the book writer wants to say at the same time, or something like that, and there not mutually exclusive. I found that in Google because I couldn't remember it from reading it originally. If I still had a copy I'd no more, but I guess that's all I have to say about that.
You can probably find a copy in the libray or at Amazon.com, but you probably have one already.
Posted by: klaus | July 15, 2005 at 07:32 PM
I think it's the fishbowl, not the fish .. or the water.
Only those that want to think and try different avenues of thinking, will value critical literacy. Otherwise it's *what's your point, make it clear*, or *what lie do I want to tell clearly and convincingly* ? No ?
Posted by: JJ Comoner | July 15, 2005 at 09:30 PM
Mike, yes, I was playfully baiting you, knowing as we both do, how intricately the writer, audience(s), context, and subject matter are implicated in every utterance. You answers flatter me; I wish I had your classical learning,
"But you've read Juvenal and Pliny; you've seen their knowledge that the same words could mean different things to different people -- look at how Pliny stumbles over himself in the Panegyricus to sort out the meanings that he knows the emperor will take one way and the people another; look at how Cicero does the same in the Pro Ligario -- and you know quite well that there's more to writing than the instrumental "teaching the dummies how to write a simple sentence," as Cicero's six (!) treatises on rhetorical theory well indicate, as the twelve volumes of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria well indicate."
I have only read Juvenal carefully (I acknowledge shamefast). Could you, if you happen back this way, talk about what you have learned, that you can and do use in your teaching, from the authors you mention?
You deconstructed my false binaries perfectly, and with kindess ("McNuggets of gain-making meaning versus Parisian Word Wanking.")
Two audiences: Now that is a fertile topic, the knowing and the unknowing. Strauss, as you know, thinks all classical texts are both esoteric and exoteric, containing a harmless upbeat meaning for the credulous masses and a Machiavellian meaning for the elite who meet in secret to pass on the oral midrash, the secret tradition, that unites the credulous student, through his puffed up professor to the greats from whom all greatness descends. Parables, too, are often meant to be dark, "so the bad people can get understand and so get saved as St Mark says the mustn't" (Frost).
Same thought from a very different angle: Had professor in grad school, Martin Price, an expert on Swift's sermon oratory, then a scholar of the English Novel. I once asked him about his own sentences, which were very intricate, subtle and deep. Price wrote across the grain, almost in dialogue with himself. The thought expressed was almost always the counter thought, or series of hesitations and reservations about the plain meaning the sentence, or its underlying thought that at first glance the sentence seemed crafted to convey. So the sentences moved almost sidesways, caught in the tension between the assertion and the hesitation and reservation. I asked Price why someone would work so hard to write sentences that no one could really grasp, that remained so evocative but elusive.
He paused and said, "In Medieval altar pieces, the angels are finished in three dimensions, yet the altar is pressed against the back wall of the nave. Why? Why carve the back of each angel?"
I muttered something about ignorant peasants carving angels, which Price urbanely overlooked.
He said, "God sees."
I feel that way about really good teachers. You teach as if God saw, whether each kid fully gets it or not. So there really are two audiences for each class. There are the students, such as they are, and there are the great dead, the rhetoricians, the poets, the great teachers the teacher may have had. You teach each lesson in a palimpsest, one surface for the students, who may in fact be snoozing, and a surface beneath the surface for the real audience, the august dead.
Anyway, Mike, thank you for hanging out with us here to talk about rhetoric. Hard to think of a deeper subject - rhetoric, spectacle, the management of perception and Blake's cleansing of the doors of perception. Rhetoric is about peformance, the creation of community, about entertaintment, and the possibility that our words express and fulfill something more.
Randal Jarrel, the great mid century appreciator of modern poetry wrote, "A poet is a writer who in in a lifetime of standing out in the rain, manages to get hit with lightning once or twice."
Along with the "vehicular" theory of meaning (I convey a meaning to you like water melon on truck), there is orginatory or performative speech, "Let there be light and there was light." And there is speech that bears witness. And there is speech like that of the prophet whose lips are touched with the burning coal.
Is rhetoric (the crafting of speech) the container in which we find art and prophecy, philosophy too, and advertising and the dark arts of sophistry? Or are poetry and philosophy above rhetoric and sophistry? (Or is the argument that they are above rhetoric just more rhetoric, a strong poem, as Harold Bloom might say.)
So, yes, I was baiting you in the hopes you could teach us more about Quintillian, Cicero, and the others. Thanks.
Posted by: The Happy Tutor | July 15, 2005 at 10:14 PM
"Someone near and dear to me in RL teaches HS English, and we met at a teacher's conference of HS English teachers, meaning writing as well as lit."
High School English is a real challenge. All I remember about 9th grade is that we watched Rocky on a field trip to the theatre and that there was two black students in the class. That didn't happen again in my classes. Pretty wierd because 900 out of 425 people in my graduating class were black.
In 10th grade all we did was stupid vocabularly exercises for the SAT. It was disgusting. Everybody cheated too because they also stole the answers from the teachers desk before she got in and passed them around. The teacher actually knew about it.
In 11th grade, I didn't want to be stuck in another stupid English class so I petitioned the principle that I could be in what they called a C1-A course. Because I didn't have the grades I had to go to his office for an interview, but they let me in anyway.
In that class we started at the beginning and read Beowulf in the original Greek. It was in the Norton anthology of English Literature - a big book that had so many pages that they were thin as Kleenex so they all could fit. That class was in the basement. I remember one time I was on my way to that class down a back stairway, and at the bottom there was a bunch of black guys and they were dancing around in a foolish way ( but they didn't have rap back then so I don't remember what they were saying) that I thought was pretty funny until one of them karate kicked me in the stomach. I would have said "hey why'd ya do that," except my diaphragm was paralyzed, so I just walked on to class until I could breathe again. That's about the only time anybody bothered me in High School, otherwise it was an alright place. My grandfather actually built that school and thirty years later there was still some teachers who he had hired way back in the 1940's, like my 12th grade English teacher who always used to talk about how she never finished her master's thesis on Dante because she had to raise kids. She was pretty good, but everybody thought she was weird with that Dante stuff.
Anyway, the year I snuck into the 11th grade c1-a course, that year I got a high score on the English Regent's Exam, and the teacher came up to me in shock and said "You! But you never say anything in class!" I suppose my diaphragm was sort of paralyzed in another way too. Makes you wonder how many otherwise smart people there are who don't say anything or say it the wrong way because they don't speak write, so they have to win fights or MC contests instead of arguments, or maybe they just lose quietly.
Posted by: klaus | July 17, 2005 at 06:56 PM
Beowulfw was a pretty good rapper himself, in those old flyting contests where the warriors insulted one another before fighting. I was not slated to attend college, my grades were so poor. It took some dedicated teachers to connect my independent reading with "school work," once that happened, the Dumpster awaited. Sadly, your exprience with teachers teaching to tests will be more and more common under "no child left behind." Standardized tests for standardized parts. It is getting so it is almost a subversive act to teach literature. Rhetoric? Well, sure, it can and should teach critical thinking, but with nothing more substantive than the kids' own musings, how will they get perspective on their life and times? It took a lot of effort to get literature into the curriculum at all, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now, like "band" it seems to be considered almost a luxury or distraction from the hard work of getting measurable results from standardized training.
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