Re: Reassessing our practices

Bob King (kingbx@HAMLET.UNCG.EDU)
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 21:26:54 -0500

On Tue, 13 Feb 1996, Steve Krause wrote:

> what I'm trying to do here is to
> disagree with what I thought your original point was-- that the essay form
> is one that has a lot of power in academia and the real world at large.

Well, this is good for the thread I think because it gets us into the
various ways practices can have power. On one level, the essay has no
power -- it's kind of an often pointless exercise in school, and once
out of school nobody gets hired on the basis of their essay writing
ability. That's one sense of "power."

On another level though the essay has quite a bit of power. In school
it positions people in a hierarchy and establishes fairly clear lines of
authority. I don't see how anyone can deny this, frankly. Faculty who
publish their essays are "above" faculty who write but don't publish,
students are novice writers, at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Outside of school the essay is powerful because it powerfully reinforces
the emphasis on individualism in our society which is also emphasized, and
hence echoed, in corporate ideology for example. I find it hard to deny
that there is some important mutual reinforcement going on between the
emphasis on finding and expressing one's own individual point of view in
school essaying, and the emphasis in corporate ideology on expressing
oneself through individual consumer choices. I could elaborate this, but
again I don't think it's necessary.

So, it seems to me the practice of essay writing is, to use the buzz
phrases, "polysemic" or "multivalent." At one and the same time but in
different senses the essay as a form or genre is both powerless and

Many people on this list seem willing to make this initial "both-and" move.
They say, pretty much as you have done, "oh, yes of course that's the way it
is -- how could you have *thought* I was so naive as to not see that?"
(this seems to be one of this community's conventions for acknowledging
an ousider may have a point. With insiders you are all much more likely
to just come right out and say "oh yes." Interesting). I take up your
time with these reflections only because this is, after all, a rhetorical
medium and a rhetoric list.

Basically I've been arguing all along that practices should be shook up and
shook up good, but nobody seems to hear that, and I can only suggest that
is is because I am not adhering to your formal conventions. Maybe you
have some discomfort about your's being a "formal" as opposed to a "content"
discipline, because you seem very willing to hear ideas which meet
certain formal criteria but very unwilling to hear similar ideas which
don't meet those criteria, but you seem to express an interest in
attending to content. To wit. . . you applaud Beth for wanting to
"shake up practices" because she goes way out of her way to feed you
positives no matter how obnoxious and petty you are being, but because
I don't coddle you formally many of you have treated me to some of the
most base rhetorical strategies I've ever experienced! I've had
transparent ad hominems (referring to me as "someone" in one post and
then using my actual name *twice* in the next -- sorry Mike, but you
yourself said these sorts of nastinesses have to be "policed," and it's
clear no one else seems inclined to do it). I've had people refer
obliquely to positions I've outlined, by referring to someone who has
responded *to* me. I've watched, both amused and bemused as you've
circled the wagons around your disciplinary investments in an amazing
variety of ways, or sat by and watched as I've been treated to some
transparent and awful strategies (as above)!

In many ways I'm still waiting for the discussion on the topic of
reassessing practices and taking a look at what it means to write a
monological essay. I hope that's an interesting reflection for
your community. It's not meant to be a blanket condemnation though,
just a perceived pattern of response articulated by someone unaccustomed
to your mores. Honestly, I'm still waiting. And some people, such as
Steve in his post which I started off responding to in this post, have
actually treated me reasonably well! I gather that the last poor
"other," Phil I think he was, really got savaged! I only caught the end
of that one, when he was being referred to as "Philzy Wilzy" I think it
was, among other things. I also missed out on the "policing" of that, in
case there was any.

Bob King