Answering Berlin’s Call: The Unfinished Work of Rhetoric and Reality

I still remember the moment as an undergraduate in the late 90s when I randomly pulled Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality off the shelf of my college library. At that time, I was a literature major passionate about critical theory, English teaching, and social justice. After I read Berlin’s book, I became an aspiring composition and rhetoric scholar. In Berlin’s work, I found a vision of a field dedicated to the teaching of writing as a deeply philosophical and political activity that could contribute to material social change—a vision that inspires me to this day.

When I came to graduate school (a land where one learns to critique everything one loves!), I came to take a much more critical view of Berlin’s work. I started to realize how Berlin problematically centered attention on the writing of white men at privileged institutions—leaving us with a very narrow and exclusionary understanding of the field’s history. (Terese Guinsatao Monberg’s post in this series compellingly engages this important line of critique). I also came to see how Berlin’s famous epistemological taxonomy was leading many compositionists to completely disregard the insights of scholars who had been deemed not epistemic enough in orientation—a point Lisa Ede eloquently made in her Situating Composition.

Building on Ede’s work, my own book, Remixing Composition, argued for a historical methodology of remix that sought to resist the kind of hierarchical taxonomies that animated Berlin’s narrative. In hindsight, though, I think my book sought not so much to critique Berlin’s work itself, but rather to challenge the claims of “Berlinians” who increasingly turned his provisional taxonomy into a rigid orthodoxy (e.g “we don’t need to read the expressivists anymore since Berlin told us they were problematic.”) Yet, Berlin quite explicitly warned us not to take his narrative as the final word, reminding readers that “I do not claim to be definitive. A great deal more needs to be said about this period, and I hope others will be encouraged to do so” (19). Here, I can see Berlin encouraging scholars in the field to complicate and extend his narrative—as many have done in the past 30 years.

When I re-read Berlin’s work now, I’m most struck by his ambitious attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of the field, noting that he sought to “include all major and most minor developments in the teaching of writing in American colleges from 1900 – 1985” (18). I can’t think of a historical book in the field since that has set out quite such an ambitious plan of coverage. And, in many ways, this is a good thing. After Berlin, scholars have increasingly turned towards composing more focused and deep historical case studies that have added much complexity and insight to the stories we tell about our past.

Nevertheless, I find myself wondering if it may be time once again for scholars to imagine broad historical projects that attempt to take stock of the increasingly massive archive(s) of writing instruction in the twentieth century. I think we could use more meta-analyses that synthesize the insights of all the diverse historical scholarship that has been published over the past thirty years. We could also make more use of distant reading and other quantitative textual analysis methods to locate and visualize trends in the field’s archives (as scholars such as Ben Miller and Derek Mueller have suggested).

Although distant reading methods might help us make better sense of large digital archives, we must remember that our own positionalities will inevitably shape the questions we ask of these archives and the methods we use to engage them. Furthermore, we should remain mindful that much of the history of the field has not been digitized—that contemporary digital archives, like Berlin’s history, still tend to privilege white men at “elite” institutions.

Berlin’s attempt to be comprehensive inevitably failed in some ways because it was not a task that could be accomplished by one person alone. Recognizing this, I think we need to imagine how “big histories” of the field might be composed collaboratively by collectives of scholars employing diverse methods and engaging diverse archives. Such collaborative histories would still inevitably have limitations, but they could allow for more complex stories to arise. What ideas do ya’ll have for how we might work together to compose “big histories” of the field?

-Jason Palmeri, Miami University


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The Rhetoric and Realities of Writing Instruction Today

As I re-read Rhetoric and Reality, some twenty years after my first reading of it in graduate school, I similarly observed the inattention to race, gender, and language diversity Asao Inoue and Terese Guinsatao Monberg noted in their recent SWR blog posts. I also noticed Berlin’s neglect of two-year colleges in his historical review of writing instruction. Although two-year colleges were a significant part of the postsecondary landscape throughout the historical period Berlin chronicled—and have long been the primary site of basic writing instruction, two-year colleges (and basic writing) are largely ignored in Rhetoric and Reality, despite their contributions to writing instruction theory and practice. Today, two-year colleges and open-admissions colleges, the most democratic of postsecondary institutions, enroll half of all college students and teach the majority of undergraduate writing, between developmental writing and first year composition courses. However, they are still under-represented in disciplinary scholarship.

In my review of Rhetoric and Reality, I was also particularly struck by the repeated rise and fall in prominence of particular beliefs about writing and writers and their manifestations over time, the consequences of such beliefs, and the conditions that create and recreate them. A few familiar patterns immediately caught my attention: the denigration of students and student writing (see Hesse’s recent Chronicle article), the vilification of high school English teachers, the shifting purposes of writing (e.g., a vocational skill, a means of exclusion, a service to other disciplines, the foundation of democracy), the reliance on objective standards and standardized testing in writing assessment, the marginalized place of writing instruction and instructors in the academy, even the erasure of First-Year Composition and Basic Writing from the curriculum. Reading Berlin’s historical account of writing instruction made me think Karr may be right: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Continue reading “The Rhetoric and Realities of Writing Instruction Today”

The Complications of Berlin’s Original Call to Teach Writing as Citizenship

Berlin concludes his book with a rousing call to writing teachers and scholars about what we do and what we hope our students will do with us. He says,

Writing courses prepare students for citizenship in democracy, for assuming their political responsibilities, whether as leaders or simply as active participants. Writing courses also enable students to learn something about themselves, about the often-unstated assumptions on which their lives are built. In short, the writing course empowers students as it advises in ways to experience themselves, others, and the material conditions of their existence — in methods of ordering and making sense of these relationships.

I can remember in grad school reading this passage and feeling invigorated, feeling that I’d made the right choice. Fuck the money, I wanta teach writing! I wanta teach citizenship, not just in a democracy but democratically! It was empowering to me because I could hear in conversations with other grad students that we all thought this was right: citizenship and empowering students to see or uncover assumptions that build their lives in and through language. Yeah, that kind of a classroom sounded, and often felt at that time in my life (the early 90s), revolutionary, felt critical, felt like critical consciousness, as in bein’ like Freire. That’s the work I wanted to do. After reading the book, I  had a better answer to why I thought the writing classroom was — is — so central to higher education, to education generally, to being human, a languaging-using animal. The writing classroom built critical citizens, prepared them for democracy.

At the time, I had the sense that we all knew these things, that this was the new paradigm. I was so enamored by the ideas, by having a clear definition for what I did, by seeing “epistemic rhetoric” as a path, even method, not just for critical awareness but social justice. But I didn’t listen to the other voice in the back of my head, the one that asked, “but isn’t there something missing? What is left out?”

Perhaps my enthusiastic response to Berlin’s important book was in part due to how this passage (and maybe the whole book) leans so much on a few Weaverian god terms: “citizenship,” “democracy,” “political,” “responsibility,” “assumptions,” and “empower students.” These were — and still are — important terms in my classrooms and pedagogy, important to the labor I ask students to do with me in those classes, important to being critical and to language work that leads to social justice. So what’s the problem? What’s missing? What is missing, I see now, was me, or rather, students and citizens like me. I don’t think we knew very well how to fit Berlin’s ideas to the more complex languaging, racial, gendered, and sexualized landscapes that the U.S. has always had in our society and in our schools.

Over the next twenty some years, I would come to see a limitation in not the purpose or goals stated by Berlin, but in how I and many others were able to articulate and enact these purposes and goals in our classrooms and writing programs with and for our diverse students. What kind of citizen building do we end up enacting in classrooms? What kinds of assumptions do we tend to learn about with our students? And (here’s the important part) what kinds of citizens and assumptions do we tend not to learn about or explore (and here’s the other important part) in our writing assessments, in our grading, evaluating, assessing, and responding, in our rubrics and standards used, in our assignments and processes of drafting and revision? I think, Berlin couldn’t see his own whiteness, or masculinity, or abledness. He surely could not incorporate some way to talk about his own white, male, middle-class subjectivity into his good call. I have often feared that the only critical pedagogy available to writing teachers and students in most places in the U.S. is a white critical pedagogy, or a critical pedagogy unable to see its own raced, classed, ableist, and gendered subject position. Many have made such critiques of Berlin and the kind of social epistemic rhetorical pedagogy he offered, but I’m not sure if as a field of teachers we’ve done much more than what Berlin has offered us. We often say we do, but how have our labors and languaging changed? I wonder.

I’ve said it before, writing assessment drives most of the learning in a writing classroom. Standards used (against) students always harm them, limit them, create unproductive failure (as opposed to productive failure). If I’m correct, then Berlin missed pointing this out in the book, and it too is part of our next steps as a field, as I see it. Berlin tells us the purpose of the writing classroom, but that’s not the same as getting to the goal, or the journey. What are the kinds of labors that make up citizen building? How do we read and judge — and teach students to read and judge — in ways that serve critical, democratic citizen building? How do we deal with judgment without falling back on white, middle class standards? Does Berlin offer ways to think about subjective judgment — that is, judgment that always necessarily comes from a subject position in time and space, which must be explained? We ask students to judge, we judge, and the rock bottom of the matter is, to teach writing is to teach judgment — that’s teaching how we are subjected to discourse, to echo Foucault. I missed this in my initial enthusiastic response to Berlin, but by the same token, he helps me see this issue today.

I think our job now as rhetorical scholars, writing scholars, and writing teachers is to draw out the learning-labors that build citizens, each of whom hold unique subject positions, but are learning in relation to larger structures of languaging, to academic discourses, to the hegemonic. And this is both a challenge and a wonderful gift to us.

-Asao Inoue, University of Washington Tacoma


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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!

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