what is composition and rhetoric????
The way[s] in which I define composition and rhetoric depends on the courage I feel at a particular moment.
As a composition instructor, I typically define composition and rhetoric as the study of a.) how texts are composed in particular contexts for particular audiences; b.) what cultural, social, and political forces are at work during the time of composition; and c.) what social, cultural, and political effects a piece of composition might have at the time of production. Rhetoric then in my eyes is very much a tool of both investigation and production. In the most superficial apolitical regard, students learn how rhetorical strategies are used in a variety of rhetorical situations in order to compose their own persuasive texts. Therefore, rhetoric and composition are linked in an effort to improve student writing, whether those “writings” are visual, print, or oral acts of communication.
//Feeling the Water//
Yet, on a deeper, perhaps more ideological and political level, I believe rhetoric and composition are linked in an effort to help students develop critical literacy skills, which enable them to analyze and critique the relationships among texts, language, power, social groups and social practices. In this more “subversive” regard, students study texts to expose ways in which language contributes to cultural hegemony, and thereby develop the critical literacy skills needed to become critical consumers and critical producers of rhetorical acts that shape their lives. Therefore, in this light composition and rhetoric can very much be defined as tools of investigation/interrogation as well as acts of production/action.
//Taking the plunge//
As a white female scholar, I narrow the scope of composition and rhetoric to a tool specifically used to investigate the ways in which dominant and non-dominant populations are represented and constructed through language and media. As of late, I am extremely interested in investigating how the rhetoric used by the military to recruit soldiers contributes to unequal cultural dynamics at work in our communities. I am particularly interested in the ways in which the military: targets certain minority populations and excludes others, constructs multiple identities, “confirm[s] the power of the dominant cultural norms (quoted in Jasinski’s “Critical Rhetoric”), contributes to social and cultural oppression, and so on. I see this work as critical not only to the “survival” of our students but also to a just democracy.
//Hitting Rock Bottom//
Along these same lines, I am also interested in the ethical dilemmas and identities of resistance that arise in an advanced composition class that fosters civic literacy through critical reflection of U.S. military recruitment materials. Working in reaction to accusations of “attacking” our government in a time of war and indoctrinating our students, I have been using Paulo Friere’s work to examine the “limit-situations” of interrogating representations of military identities in a composition and rhetoric classroom. I also want to research how Burke’s dramatistic pedagogy can help students understand not only their own resistances, but also how rhetoric can act as a tool of critical investigation into how contemporary military identities are crafted during times of war.
//why am I here//
I came to this field as both a teacher and a scholar because I feel composition and rhetoric is a discipline that is useful on multiple levels–from teaching students how to enact agency through rhetorical acts, to unlocking language systems of oppression, to creating progressive pedagogies which address global concerns and honor a global student body. I also came to this field to a great extent to fulfill a personal drive to contribute something “good” and “useful” to my multiple and pluralistic communities. I was raised in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1970s and 80s– a time when segregation had been illegal for some years, but a time when racial divisions still very much existed. As a white student in racially diverse public schools, I took pride in being friends with everyone, at least on the playgrounds and in the classrooms. In the lunchrooms, however, even I didn’t attempt to cut through the segregation lines. Black students sat with black students. White students sat with white students, and the few other minority students sat with teachers. The racial tension in that lunchroom, as Beverly Tatum has noted, was as thick as the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes.
Despite the racial tension, few fights erupted between black and white students in my school because the racism, though pervasive, was relatively silent. Silent, because out in the open no one dared to speak about the tension, no one dared to act upon the deep-seated hates and fears between the two cultures, and certainly no one made strides toward addressing the racial divisions. In my schools, everyone, including the teachers, acted as if racism didn’t exist.
Fifteen years have passed since then, and unfortunately, I don’t think very much has changed. Sure students read Martin Luther King’s speeches and write research papers on how Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott; every student has heard of Brown vs. Board of Education. But the conversations that really help students understand what racism is and how it is perpetuated on both covert and overt levels are readily absent. I suspect this because each semester in the composition courses I taught at The University of Montana, I asked my students, who come from all over the country, how to define racism and whether or not they still think it is a problem in the United States. Most of my white students, especially ones raised in middle to upper classes, only define personally-mediated racism and claimed it is no longer a problem in America. In fact, when I told them we are beginning a unit titled “Rhetorics and Racism,” my white students groaned and whined, “Not again!” and/or “ What more is to be said. We weren’t part of it, so why do we have to talk about it?”
I share these experiences to illustrate the perspectives, academic interests, and ideological concerns that influence my pedagogy and scholarship. I firmly believe that teachers and administrators have the power to disrupt the hegemonic systems that often oppress many of our minority students. Furthermore, if teachers aren’t actively fighting to disrupt these systems, they are only contributing to an educational system that functions properly for the betterment of all students in democratic theory, but in reality perpetuates the hegemonic systems at work in our society. Sparked by the poor example set by my Alabama teachers, my scholarship and pedagogy are driven by the desire to help all students understand how language is often a culprit in cultural marginalization.
//Where is here//
Because of the productive nature of our field and my personal drive, at this time I situate myself in the field of composition and rhetoric at the intersection between post-colonial theory, critical rhetoric, and critical pedagogy. I first became interested in this intersection when researching colonial discourse for an essay titled “Cultivating Transcultural Understanding,” which I enclosed in my application to this doctoral progam. In this essay, I used Edward Said’s notion of “methodological self-consciousness” to demonstrate how words and images contribute to the unequal cultural dynamics of power that exist in America today. Said’s scholarship is fascinating because it interrogates ways in which dominant cultures represent and construct the other based on essentialized differences and thereby attain cultural hegemony. What also intrigues me is the notion that these essentialized differences complicate not only the way dominant cultures view others but also how marginalized others represent themselves. Therefore, self-representations that attempt to subvert systems of power in our culture often end up only reinforcing them. The overriding question of interest to me that arises from such thinking is: how do both representation of the other and self in language and media contribute to systems of inequality and subordination? This is one question I now bring to every text.
Critical rhetoric provides more tools for this investigation into the relationship between discourse and power. Raymie McKerrow’s insights into practices of critical rhetoric are especially helpful in focusing my analysis in any given text and motivate me to develop “new” questions of inquiry, which interrogate a discourse’s relation to power dynamics.
As far as critical pedagogy goes, the work of Paulo Friere, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, James Berlin, and Cornell West have very much influenced and continue to influence not only my pedagogy but my scholarship.
As mentioned earlier as a composition and rhetoric instructor, I help my students develop the critical literacy skills necessary to investigate the hegemonic systems that govern their private and public lives. I stress a rhetorical approach to reading and writing so that students learn how to expose ideological forces and codes that shape their subjectivities. In my scholarship, I aim to master these same skills so that I can better develop pedagogy to foster these same critical skills in my students. In this regard, my pedagogy and scholarship are always intertwined, and I always work from the location of teacher/researcher and researcher/teacher.
//Where am I going//
As I read and write in our course, I would like to continue to think about the intersection between post-colonial theory, critical rhetoric, and critical pedagogy. I might use the Independent Reading/Writing Project to see what bridges have already been formed between these specializations, but I might also use the project as an opportunity to narrow my focus on the rhetoric of the military. Guiding questions off the top of my head might be: What work has been done on the study of military recruiting rhetorics? What military identities have been constructed in the past and how do these identities reflected cultural dynamics at play? How has critical education and “civic literacy” been taken up thus far in composition courses? How have professors who have implemented critical pedagogy in the classroom been perceived by the public in the past? In recent times? What are other country’s perspectives on pedagogy that fosters critiquing governmental actions in the classroom? In other countries and in our own, how has the role of professor as advocate or professor as government watchdog or government critic been accepted?
where should I go//