more thoughts on rhet/comp disciplinary futures

More riffing on Kopelson’s CCC article. She notes from her study that "graduate student responses seem to suggest that it is what Janice Lauer has called the ‘spaciousness of rhetoric’ that can provide an ideal designation for all of what we (could) do, an appellation around which an array of disciplinary inquires and pursuits might best coalesce, and not because it best contains those inquires, but because it permits them to disseminate and disperse. As Brenda [one of the grad students] asked earlier, ‘what’s not rhetoric?’" Kopelson endorses this familiar notion of thinking of rhetoric as a broadly conceived field and encourages the idea of exploring the many possible spaces out there, as opposed to our continuing penchant for self examination. She writes that she is not arguing that self-exmaination "is an unimportant activity, but only that the costs of are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other, more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge."

I am intrigued by this notion of "far-reaching" and will come back to that in a moment. But first let me say that I get the whole resistance to the insistence that rhet/comp research be pedagogical and/or applicable to the classroom. I understand the desire to be recognized as a discipline and valued by other sectors of the university. I get all that. I also recognize the arguments made by folks like Kurt Spellmeyer that we need to make ourselves relevant to the culture and not become increasingly esoteric and irrelevant like some of the other humanities. We don’t need to go in that direction.

But I also see the following. FYC is a big business. 3000 4-year institutions, 2500 2-year institutions in the U.S. I figure there could be as many as 100,000 people teaching FYC in the fall (tenure-line, lecturers, grad students, adjuncts, etc.). I don’t know. That would be an average of a little under 20 faculty per institution. Maybe it’s 75,000. It’s a lot of people.

According to Ellen Cushman in her piece in Composition Studies in the New Millenium, there were 135 Phd’s in rhet/comp granted in 1997. For my informal purpose, let’s assume that is a good average for the last 20 years. That would be 2700 Phds. Given that number, I think it’s safe to assume there are fewer than 4000 rhet/comp Phd’s currently teaching in higher education.

Of course not all of those folks teach rhet/comp (in fact only a
fraction do). But let’s lump everyone together for a moment and say
that rhet/comp PhD’s make up about 5% of the people teaching writing
and/or rhetoric in higher education.

So if we want to be "far-reaching," perhaps we could start by reaching
the 70,000 other people teaching writing in colleges. Do we really
imagine these people are already hearing us? I assure you, they are
not. If we don’t have anything to say to that audience, who do we have
something to say to? It should be that hard to reach these audiences.
Rhet/comp Phds supervise most FYC programs.

I’m not saying we all need to do that work, but there’s plenty of work to be done right there.

There’s another important aspect of this however that makes our self-scrutiny more understandable. We are in the midst of the biggest communications revolution in human history. Needless to say that revolution is part of the larger transformations of globalization. And (needless to say) these processes are transforming higher education. Our discipline might have a role to play there.

But let me take a different tack for a second. What are the fundamental, paradigmatic questions of rhetoric and composition?

  • What is communication? It’s a cross-disciplinary question–comm studies, psychology, information science, linguistics, cognitive science, sociology… However, rhetoric certainly has a role to play as the (post) humanistic investigation of these matters.
  • What is effective communication? This becomes more an "applied science." This is where we might connect with a broader audience.
  • How do we teach/learn effective communication? The pedagogical turn. Here we also have a potentially broad audience in the education industry.

The communications revolution has effected a paradigmatic shift in that first question, which then trickles down to everything else. I realize the danger in these conversations is always to end up saying we should all do what I’m doing. I don’t want to argue that! I’m not sure I want the competition. I realize maybe 5-10% of scholars in rhet/comp deal with technology as a central concern in their work. That’s fine, as long as every rhet/comp prof under the age of 45 realizes that technological change will likely fundamentally transform the institution and culture in which s/he works in the next 20 years.

I’m just saying that if our discipline is looking for a stronger sense of identity it could do worse than to identify a few core questions, conduct research, and then bring that work to bear beyond our community in conversations where decisions are being made.