Revisiting Rhetoric and Reality: Histories and Possibilities for Rhetoric

As we approach the 30th anniversary of James Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, I’m reminded that this year also marks the 100th anniversary of a photo taken of my grandfather building the railroad through Montana. As a Filipino migrant worker, colonial subject, and self-sponsored student, he worked his way to Chicago in pursuit of his (North) American education. These two histories come together in a transcript I found a few years ago documenting that my grandfather passed his “Rhetoric Zero” course at a local community college. But these legacies have also been useful to my own work and my understanding of what it means to re-narrate a history, disciplinary or otherwise.

As one of the first published historical overviews of the discipline, Berlin’s text reflects disciplinary concerns that extended into my time as a graduate student in the 1990s. One of Berlin’s self-stated purposes was to “chronicle” a history of events that, in turn, would document a diversity of approaches used in the formal teaching of writing. I can see how this history would be useful to those in a growing discipline concerned that rhetoric and writing curricula were seen as “remedial” and assumed to be without a history, a set of genealogies, pedagogical traditions, or theoretical frameworks. And, occasionally, I face these attitudes toward our discipline even today.

Scholars like Jacqueline Jones Royster, Shirley Wilson Logan, Victor Villanueva, LuMing Mao, Hui Wu, Morris Young, Malea Powell, Rhea Lathan, Angela Haas, Candace Epps-Robertson, Qwo-Li Driskill, Kendall Leon, Vorris Nunley, Haivan Hoang, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Mira Shimabukuro, and Gabriela Ríos, as one list of examples, have deepened our knowledge of forms of rhetoric made and taught in sites that extend beyond the academic curricula surveyed in Rhetoric and Reality. This work raises different concerns about disciplinary histories and genealogies than those surrounding Berlin’s text. It speaks to the fluidity of a discipline that has accumulated wider and deeper genealogies for histories (and theories) of rhetoric. And yet, from where I sit in the discipline, concerns persist about histories and traditions that have yet to be made visible or, more importantly, seen as central and transformative of dominant paradigms and boundaries often used to define the discipline.

The ways we re-narrate a history—whether through writing, teaching, reading, or listening—makes history. This understanding informed the ways that Jennifer Sano-Franchini, K. Hyoejin Yoon, and I approached our forthcoming edited collection, Building a Community, Having a Home: A History of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Asian/Asian American Caucus. We set out to purposefully generate a history with caucus members that would remain open to revision and, ideally, be generative for our members, NCTE’s Writing and Working for Change project, and the larger discipline(s). We made our best attempts to “situate the caucus as a space where a longer continuum of past and present alternative institutions related to Asians and Asian Americans might become visible.” In writing this history, it was often the gaps and silences, coalitions and connections that were most instructive and useful for seeing the possibilities for re-narrating this particular history (as one history) of our caucus.

Last year, I collaborated with colleagues and community members to lead students on an Asian Pacific American tour of Detroit. Students learned that the neighborhood in which James Berlin was born, Hamtramck, is now also home for Americans of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, South Asian, and Arab descent. But they also learned of Asian Americans in Detroit, like Grace Lee Boggs, who have been central to rhetorical theory, method, and instruction outside of college-level writing curricula. This tour, my grandfather’s transcript, and tracing one history of the Asian/Asian American Caucus are only a few of that many reminders of rhetoric’s histories and possibilities.

–Terese Guinsatao Monberg, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH), Michigan State University

I’d like to thank Steve Parks and Brett Keegan for their work on this forum and for inviting me to participate. I look forward to the conversations!

Editor Note: To post a comment, please click “Comments” on the side of the title or click the title of the piece and scroll down. Then post a comment filling in the relevant fields, like your name, e-mail, etc. You may also subscribe to the particular post if you wish to receive follow-up e-mail regarding the conversation.