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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: E 27 Making Rhetoric Matter: The Classroom as a Site for Cultural Critique and Production
Reviewed by: Matt Abraham, MAbra68114@aol.com
Posted on: April 12, 2004

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Chair: Janice Lauer, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

Donald Lazere, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Academic Discourse as a Site of Civil Discourse and Cultural Critique”

     Concerned that Rhetoric and Composition has, in practice, become defined almost exclusively as writing instruction, while paying less attention to the development of skills in reading, vocabulary, reasoning, and argumentation, Lazere claims that political literacy—among the entering college student population—is an endangered skill. In fact, Lazere contends that the discipline of English Studies has all together washed its hands of teaching it. He finds that students in other countries develop a much better academic base of knowledge than their American peers.
     Lazere thinks that postmodern approaches to the teaching of composition often denigrate the teaching of academic discourse, finding it oppressive and associating it with right-wing politics and educational policy, while leaving students with an inadequate skill base through which to conduct political critique. He would like to see progressive forces join with conservative voices such as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsh to bring some coherence to the college writing instruction curriculum, particularly with respect to teaching of civic literacy.
     Lazere, through the observations of Gerald Graff, finds that students resist left-leaning teachers not so much because they resist their politics but because they are baffled by them. Drawing upon the remarks of Joseph Harris, Ellen Cushman, and Beth Daniell as examples of  “postmodern” compositionists who allege that academic discourse is elititist, denigrates everyday writing, and promotes the interests of self-serving academics, Lazere encourages—through the remarks of Mina Shaughnessy—a reappraisal of the value of academic discourse as “the common language not only of the university but of the professional and public world outside.”
       Lazere worries that the postmodern compositionist’s suspicion of academic discourse, and the articulation of this suspicion through radical pedagogies whereby students’ “home languages” are valued over an academic style, may disadvantage already disadvantaged and marginalized groups. If compositionists are really concerned with empowering the dispossessed, Lazere argues, “[s]houldn’t we [instead] be doing everything to enable them to gain access to academic discourse for their own empowerment?” Lazere asks, How is it possible, if the academic system is as oppressive and actually robs minds of the capacity to think critically about the military-industrial complex and corporations, that this same system produced the likes of Edward Said, Toni Morrison, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Howard Zinn, Richard Ohmann, and many others? Lazere wants to problematize the binaries that often plague discussions of the interactions between academic and non-academic sites.
       Developing a dialogical approach to pedagogy, while maintaining standards of factual knowledge, critical thinking, and teachers' authority, remains the challenge that faces today’s progressive educators. Lazere claims that “[w]e just need to assert ourselves to become the authorities in implementing progressive standards.”

Mary Jo Reiff, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Classroom as Sites of Critique and Change”

    Following up on Lazere’s discussion, Reiff attempts to blur the boundary between academic and public spheres and discourses by situating genre analysis at the heart of writing pedagogy. This blurring, in her estimation, is necessary to help make rhetoric matter. She argues that rhetorical theories of genre and public sphere theory intersect and thus inform a pedagogy of public discourse. Drawing upon Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere,” Nancy Fraser’s notion of “counterpublic,” and Michael Warner’s “multigeneric lifeworlds,” Reiff asks “in what sense do public genres embody not just the rhetorical practices that construct and sustain but also challenge publics?”  
      Reiff frames her presentation around Charles Bazerman’s contribution to a recent book edited by Richard Coe, entitled The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre. In this article, Bazerman provides a brief history of civic participation through an examination of classical genres of forensic, deliberative, and epideictic rhetoric. In addition, Bazerman analyzes “literate genres of written law and court records, polemics and manifestos, ballots and newspapers and, finally, his main interest—political websites.”  According to Reiff, Bazerman recognizes  the ways in which public spheres morph and analyzes how this morphing influences civic participation.
      Using Rosa Eberly’s argument that the composition classroom mirrors a “proto-public sphere” where students “approximate a public but [are] limited by its institutional setting and the authority of the teacher,” Reiff claims that genre analysis, critique, and production can preserve a space for cultural critique while giving students access to public issues and genres that have practical material force.
      Using examples from Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, a book she co-authored with Amy Devitt and Anis Bawarshi, Reiff explains how students come to recognize public genres, such as petitions, as rhetorical sites through which to enact their own civic participation. Citing the work of Susan Wells on public writing and Bruce McComiskey on rhetorical intervention and social change, Reiff urges composition teachers to produce new genres that encode alternative values for the purpose of helping their students intervene in the public sphere.

Janet Atwill, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “The Rhetorical Situation as a Site of Critique and Invention”

      Atwill revisits an argument that Aristotle’s conception of art provides an invaluable tool for conducting cultural critique. She focused on three aspects of art in her talk:

1) Art establishes rhetorical principles as guides to follow not decontextualized precepts that serve as a means to an end.

2) Art binds principles to rhetorical situations at two points—a) art is based on the observation of performance in context and b) art, in turn, enables performance in context.

3) Art is tied to, perhaps even constitutive of, critical perspectives because it bears witness to a gap between knowledge and situation, expectation and circumstance.

     This conception of art challenges instrumental conceptions of rhetorical art. Those who engage in art are engaged in a practice. Art can intervene when experience has not provided us with the perquisites necessary to deal with a particular situation. Rhetorical arts are always in the process of being revised; we must be attentive to expanding the scope of rhetoric’s province. Critical practice emerges as a product of exchanges between teachers and students. To construct an art is to decode social practice while situating it within its social boundaries. Art is located on the complex and permeable boundaries of social communities. Atwill argues that art “is both a symptom and a catalyst of a break with commonsense”. It’s such a break, Atwill argues through Bourdieu, where politics “strictly speaking” begins. Atwill’s insights possess wide ranging implications for teaching and understanding the rhetorical situation.

Anis Bawarshi, University of Washington, Seattle, “Genres as Sites of Invention”

      In his paper, Bawarshi argued that genres are sites through which students can come to make rhetoric matter. Bawarshi calls for a rhetorically situated view of invention that “positions writers at the intersection between interpretation and production.”
     As genres operate as organizing systems that establish expectations and provide the necessary kairotic moment, Bawarshi—drawing upon the work of Yates Orliknowski (2000)—describes genre systems as “serv[ing] as organizing structures within a community, providing expectations for the purpose, content, form, participants, time, and place of coordinated social interaction.” However, the expectations that genres create are not a priori, but are instead the point at which rhetoric matters as “they are ongoing rhetorical accomplishments that are sustained by how individuals interpret and participate within them.”   
     By examining how students interact with genres, writing teachers can better understand how negotiate genre encounters in their courses. Bawarshi drew on several examples to illustrate this point.

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