Sharon Crowley—“A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry”

In this article, Crowley calls for the return of rhetorical awareness to reading and writing instruction and for modern writing teachers to engage in what Crowley calls “sophistry”—professional engagement with political, cultural, and social issues. Crowley reminds us that teachers of writing are also rhetoricians, full of opinions about ethics, politics, aesthetics, among other topics. As rhetoricians, we should adopt the Sophistic awareness that we teach in social, cultural, and political contexts and that have an ethical responsibility to teach about issues we deem most important and in need of study and deliberation.

I appreciate this call to action for it greatly bothers me that in a field trained with rhetoricians, we seem to have very few public intellectuals and in that during the last few years, many of us seem “intimidated” to teach about matters of such as war in fear of being labeled biased, liberal, and exclusionary. In terms of public intellectuals, why is it that as rhetoricians, we seem to avoid taking public stances in writing. Why do we limit our writing to scholarly articles? I once expressed a desire to write for an audience outside the academy, say publish in Harpers or The New Yorker, big aspirations I know. A colleague said I can do that but those publications might not count toward tenure. Is that true? Shouldn’t we be using our rhetorical talents and our scholarly wisdom to be educating those outside the academy? Why do we write only to each other? I understand we are trying to create knowledge, to shape our discipline, to further the rhetorical tradition. But I wonder if that it is the most useful way for rhetorical scholars to contribute to global affairs. I wonder how different our discipline might be received both inside and outside the academy if we begin to share our expertise for audiences outside the academy? Would we be blamed for Sophistry if we did? As Enos discovers about Gorgias, would we be denigrated for our political motives? Do contemporary rhetorical scholars tend to stay out of politics because of deeply embedded anxieties about being accused of being politically motivated stemming back from Plato’s accusations about “sophistry”??

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3 responses to “Sharon Crowley—“A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry”

  1. Pingback: gazing westward

  2. lpagnew

    These conversations definitely reveal ways in which our depictions of history inevitably connect with our views of what the discipline should be–and that in turn drives our pedagogy. Crowley makes a strong case for the need for composition/rhetoric teachers to see their public presence as part of their work. To what extent do you find her depiction of sophistic pedagogy persuasive? Does your reading of Schiappa generate questions about this argument–or can we use the sophists as models regardless of their precise historical identity?

  3. legries

    I don’t know if we can use the sophists as models in light of Schiappa’s article. It seems that if we do, we must recognize that some argue we lack sufficient evidence that the Sophists are the rhetors we want to believe and then go from there. I think the class was astute to ask why Crowley needed to use the Sophists as models in the first place to make her argument? I addressed this issue on our class blog.

    I also don’t know anymore if I find anyone’s arguments about the Sophist’s convincing. I am becoming more and more convinced that scholarly imagination has concocted a history of the Sophists that we don’t really have enough physical evidence to support. This leads me to ask why does our discipline feel the need to historicize the Sophists in the ways most scholars have? What does our field benefit from presenting a certain history of the Sophists?

    I am very interested in the conversation that we will be having about the role of the imagination in historiography. History cannot exist without imagination, but if our ideologies affect the way we imagine the world to be, then what responsibility to we have to curb our imaginations when we are writing history? Is that even possible?

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