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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17 thoughts on “Revisiting Rhetoric and Reality: Histories and Possibilities for Rhetoric

    1. Dear Elaine, thank you for your comment and excitement about our forthcoming collection! I have always found your work and presence in the discipline inspiring. Look forward to hearing about what you’re working on next! All my best, Terese

  1. This conversation is critical to the way we pay attention to what this field is becoming as an enterprise within a constellation of industries that invest in Writing and Rhetoric as part of a “gen-ed” program, as part of a “writing program,” as part of a “writing center,” as part of an “English department,” and, increasingly, part of a “Writing Studies” department.

    As the administrative aspects of introductions to Rhetoric and Composition become as various as “Intro to Writing Studies,” or “Principles of Rhetoric and Composition,” or other such titles, we must ask how much of these classes focuses on the intellectual service work of teaching first and second year college students how to do “academic writing,” vs. other purposes. For example, some of these courses introduce students to how we make knowledge in our recently professionalized discipline Rhet|Comp, using work from our discipline as the “content” that students use while being mum about our disciplinary history and why that history has everything to do with how they might conceive of disciplinarity at all, their sense of identity as college students, and a recognition of the politics and sociology of knowledge.

    Indeed, the first-year writing class is an ideal place to present compelling narratives about the humanities, its transdisciplinary power, industrial force, and methodological richness. Unfortunately, FYC can be a nebulous place to study and document, given the adjunct and graduate student labor that tends to run these courses.

    From my vantage, having taught at three different types of institutions–a large research 1 school, a midsize state research university, and an SLAC HBCU for women, the perspective of FYC is fairly similar across the board. Students need to learn “rhetorical competencies” and how to do “academic writing” plain and simple. The first two institutions administrate a FYC “program” through a WAC/WID writing program, an office of FYC, or through a set of SLOs that are widely interpreted through the autonomy of TT or Tenured professors teaching the class.

    Of course, the aims of the class as it relates to producing good writers as opposed to “better writing” has been an issue for sometime now, and one can’t help but wonder about the role creativity ought to have in FYC. Bertoff and Berkenkotter certainly discussed this problem, as have Sirc, Rice, and others. Thus, our revisiting of the past might as consciously examine epistemologies of creativity as much as we focus on the inclusion and exclusion of “others” serving and being served by Rhet/Comp.

    I am particularly interested if historiographies of the teaching and learning of writing will consider the growing literature on transfer and consider whether writing about writing works. I am also wondering if the issue of transfer and a budding discourse about “data-driven” and R&D research might be displacing some of the curricula that focused on the politics of language, as it relates to the social construction of identity, community, technology, etc. Critical theory had a major impact on certain pedagogical approaches for at least the past 25 years. Residues of that influence persist, but new narratives of intensified racial conflict, rape culture, disability, sexuality, and media culture’s influence on writing are most certainly affecting how writing is being taught, but as a field, we seem to overlook all kinds of ways to collectively focus our energies on history-making using the most robust and inclusive methods of documentation available to us today. Jill Gladstein’s Census project is one way that we can begin to track the histories of Rhet/Comp emerging throughout the U.S., and a rich collection of student literacy narratives can be accessed through Ohio State University servers thanks to the exhaustive efforts of scholars like Cynthia Selfe, Gail Hawisher, Brenda Brueggemann, etc. However, professional organizations should be partnering to find even more rigorous, open source mechanisms for a mixed methods open-access resource that tracks, documents, and traces anything that resembles FYC anywhere in the world. We could do this via media wiki software (the same software that powers Wikipedia). If anyone could the resource and it’s organization and content could emerge from users interested in sharing the work, we could observe so much more about what is and has been happening with college writing.

    Imagine your grandmother who went to an HBCU uploading her syllabus from a rhetoric class she took at Wilberforce, or your mom uploading her syllabus from a local community college. Our best efforts at history-making in the field are thwarted by the closed publication system and the fight for job security. We deliberate a lot about the lack of free speech protection available to the temporary laborer and the untenured, but offer few ways for people to contribute to sustainable, scaling resources that may provide an infrastructure for some degree of anonymity. If such a wiki were to be developed, it could be studied in all kinds of ways that could bring more life to our scholarship and public engagement.

    Others have written about the potential of wikis for archival and research purposes. Rosenzweig, Suoranta and Vaden, etc. have written about digital history and the uses of wikis for critical history writing.

    In sum, our work is now digital work. It had always been scaled and various, but we are much more aware of the inability of any one scholar or small group of scholars’ ability to know the extent of the scaling. We need digital humanities methods integrated with antiracist, decolonial perspectives on our field’s historical engagement with the making of history to begin earnestly doing the work of learning about field in the past and present. Our diversity in bodies and technologies depends on what we are willing to see in scale on screen offline designed for print or electronic delivery via English(es) we count towards meaning making well and the truth of interpreting and producing texts Today.

    1. Alexandria, thank you for such an engaging response! Your argument reminds me of the many kinds of histories our field might document. As a field, we’ve been predominantly interested in histories of FYC but my work (and your post) also reference the many histories and rhetorics of writing that extend beyond FYC (and beyond formal academic instruction).

      Your comment on the capacities of the digital humanities is on point! And as we think about integrating digital approaches with antiracist and decolonial histories, methods, and pedagogies, I’m reminded of my former life as a computer programmer/analyst. This experience has taught me (and your post reminds me) that we must pay attention to the capacities but also the assumptions and limitations that are built/programmed into digital methods or infrastructures–and making those visible as part of our histories. There is good work being done here. In addition to your own work, there is a growing body of work engaging the intersection of digital, cultural, decolonial, and antiracist rhetorics in the growing field of Cultural Rhetorics, a field that is committed to seeing these relationships in constellation.

      As someone who has also taught at four different kinds of institutions and now teaches in an interdisciplinary arts and humanities college (RCAH), I’ve never felt more engaged about what it means to teach writing and what it means to teach histories of rhetoric and writing–the constellations are what become most exciting to me. Thank you for your amazing response. I look forward to hearing more about your work!

    1. Yes, Beverly Moss has moved the field in so many important directions. Also related to our discussion here is her co-edited issue of Reflections on histories of community literacy partnerships in HBCUs (that have not always been recognized by the larger discipline).

  2. Terese, thank you for the reply. As you mentioned, I definitely spent a lot of time talking about FYC–partly because Berlin does in Rhetoric and Reality, and also because I think its how many of us end up being “recruited” to the discipline, and where much of its nomenclature circulates within and outside of educational institutions. But yes, the work expands beyond that space and when we talk about the field’s history, it can be charted in all kinds of ways people are operating in the world inside and outside of institutional learning spaces.

    I am a proponent of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Access (OA) because I think that the certain aspects of education should be free and accessible to anyone interested in teaching and learning. My research involves the implications of scaling information, especially how we it literally affects our language use and cultural practices of naming phenomena. In particular, I study information leaks and their relationship to the proliferation of surveillance (ICTs). I dream of a field that actively utilizes open-source technologies for scaled documentation efforts such as tracking, documenting, mapping, and design of metrics for visualizing the dynamic and evolving contours of this interdisciplinary thing that is Rhetoric, Composition, Literacy, and Communication Studies. However, I’m not sure how that it will happen though when the scope of the field makes it difficult to organize efforts towards such a large project.

    I’m not so sure how committed the field is to the practice of antiracist, decolonial pedagogies and research methods. I wonder about this word “engagement” and whether the field is actually doing the kind of work necessary for actualizing these values. Writing about what’s wrong, or ‘rhetorical listening,’ is great, but I don’t think that it requires the kinds of risks necessary for any visible, or lasting change. I am interested in radical methods of making history and making the present happening. I want to see more proposals for alternative ways of knowing and doing through novel language uses. I find the absence of poetry in our criticism as disturbing as I find the field’s underrepresentation of practitioners that are part of the cultures who our work tends to focus on (often as persons that are the recipients of our work).

    Who will invest in this work and how will it be done?

    Thanks again for your response, and I hope that we can begin to articulate possibilities for making history in every sense of the word.

    1. I agree, Alexandria. I would not say that the field is committed to antiracist, decolonial pedagogies, practices, and methods. But people across the field also have different ideas of what that looks like and work in different contexts. But this is true of most academic fields. Even debates in Ethnic Studies prompted the formation of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA). Decolonial work is particularly central to the sub-field of Cultural Rhetorics, including the ways that story, poetry, performance, and other forms of rhetoric sustain knowledge-making systems that I would not call “alternative” but central to people historically underrepresented in/by the discipline and other knowledge-making industries. There are clusters of people in our field working in those directions, working across disciplines and contexts for learning, teaching, making knowledge, and working toward change in many dimensions–and they have been for some time. One argument we assert in our forthcoming collection is that change–radical or otherwise–happens in both big moments and in small, sometimes mundane, consistent workings that accumulate over time. But contexts in which we work/live also shift over time, requiring new tactics at every turn.

    2. Hey Alexandria,

      Yes to all of this, but especially your third paragraph. I too am interested in “radical methods of making history and making the present happening” as part of and alongside anti-racist and decolonial pedagogies–and have a number of colleagues here at West Chester interested in similar questions.

      I don’t have answers to “how” the work will be done, but I’m very interested in recruiting others to invest in it. Thanks for getting us started here, and for your compelling work that gives us all a headstart in this direction.

      (Terese, hooray for this book and thank you for all your work! I can’t wait to congratulate Hyoejin in person next I see her around campus!)

      1. You’re welcome, Timothy! From my perspective, the first way that we can practice antiracist research methods is to actually disclose our personal relationship to the work. When people in the field connect through their own narratives about their experiences with race and racism, we will be capable of producing much richer scholarship about the subject. Through storytelling, we can begin to know more about how epistemologies of reality reflexively mediate race and racism. I am in the process of working on the *how* and will be sure to notify you when (crosses fingers) that project is greenlighted.

  3. My inability to edit when my devices auto-correct isn’t such a good look. For the sticklers, the corrected sentences are below:

    “I am a proponent of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Access (OA) because I think that certain aspects of education should be free and accessible to anyone interested in teaching and learning”

    ” My research involves the implications of scaling information, especially how it literally affects our language use and cultural practices of naming phenomena.”

    “However, I’m not sure that it will happen though when the scope of the field makes it difficult to organize efforts towards such a large project.”


    “However, I’m not sure how that will happen when the scope of the field makes it difficult to organize efforts towards such a large project.”

    (I really did mean it as either sentence conveys it)

    🙂 I’m writing these responses rather fast, but I’ll give the next ones a better revision. I appreciate y’all for bearing with the errors.

  4. Thanks, Terese, for helping me think about the many “disciplinary histories and genealogies” that define our field. I look forward to your collection.

    1. Thank you, John, for taking the time to read and comment. I hope we can continue to open the field in these ways. Thank you for all of your work toward those directions.

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